Gone was the swagger, the tough talk on Iraq, the applause lines that used to accompany talk of the war and its importance. Even the President's powder blue tie now seemed a concession to Madame Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who sat Behind the president's left shoulder.
From the long faces on Vice President Dick Cheney and Pelosi during the speech, it was hard to tell who was the Republican and who the Democrat in that pair, except I probably would have guessed Cheney for Democrat since he was the more dour of the two as they seemed to perch on the president's shoulder like that devil and angel in Animal House.
Pelosi did beam at least twice, as the President shrewdly began his State of the Union speech with a double dose of accolade, saying he was the first president ever to begin a speech with these words: "Madame Speaker," then congratulating her once more as the applause rolled and Pelosi basked.
It was a classy start for a speech whose tone was subdued, almost plaintive.
After talking domestic policy for a while, the president essentially asked the Congress and the American people to give his troop-surge strategy time to work. Whatever you voted for, he said, it was not for failure. He was talking both to the Congress that had initially supported the war, and to the people who voted to unseat Republicans from the cognressional majority.
The Democrats response for time to let the strategy work was, essentially, no.
Having watched American Idol at 8-9, I stuck around to watch the initial coverage on Fox. I thought Shepard Smith framed the impending speech beatifully, closing with the observation that he wondered whether anyone would hear the speech "above the thunder of the elephant in the room, which was the war in Iraq.
Fox was also the only network not to leap at the chance to insert a commercial between the end of the president's speech and the Democratic response by Webb, sticking around for more analysis and commentary.
OVer onj ABC, Charlie Gibson (yes, Charlie) had plenty of gravitas, even with Senator Hillary Clinton and ABC's own George Stephanopoulos referring to him as Charlie rather than the Charles ABC has tried to turn him into. Can't we just call him Charlie now and drop the Charles, which sounds like a butler anyway?
George Will, ABC's resident pundit of the night, made the eloquent observation that on the issue of the war, "there were very few undecided votes in the House.
The president seemed almost eerily at ease given the circumstances, and stuck around for quite a while to shake hands and sign autographs. It was also a strange sight to see him shaking hands and smiling with Rep. Dennis Kucinich, perhaps his staunchest opponent on, well, almost everything, but the war in particular. But that is one of the great things about this annual ritual, where enemies agree to show a united front to the world no matter how disunited the back and sides are.
Good for us.
But I digress again.
Virginia Senator Jim Webb, who beat George Allen with an assist from YouTube, delivered the Democratic response, armed with a glowing red power tie that said he meant business.
He did. In contrast to Bush's conciliatory tone, Webb, son of a soldier, veteran of Vietnam, and father of an infantryman in Iraq, said the president had a duty to "measure with accuracy the value of our lives," and had instead entered the war recklessly, a war in which we were now held hostage to the predictable and predicted disarray.
By John Eggerton