Copyrighted material


by Alexander Cockburn

on 2007 State of the Union address

The Bush presidency is finished, whether or not he takes us all down with him. A State of the Union address is always a pitiless register of where exactly the White House incumbent stands, in terms of political power. As Bush plodded through a list of doomed political initiatives, the news cameras kept swiveling away from him, like people seeking escape from a bore at a cocktail party.

They peered over his shoulder at Nancy Pelosi, America's first female Speaker of the House; they swiveled up to the balcony at a haggard-looking Laura Bush; they sought out the Democratic presidential hopefuls, like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

A first-timer at this annual event might have thought Bush was doing well, as the politicians, judges and generals bobbed up and down with the usual ovations. But the reactions were dutiful and the mood low-key in contrast to such electric evenings as Clinton's State of the Union in 1998 as the Lewinsky affair was bursting over his head, or Nixon's desperate rhetorical lunges in January 1974, flailing for air as the undertow of the Watergate scandal drowned his second term.

Bush stepped to the rostrum shackled to polling numbers that put him at the third-lowest presidential ratings on record. He has the approval of only 28 percent of the people, still hovering above Carter's 26 percent in 1979, in the late autumn of his term, and of Nixon's 24 percent shortly before he resigned.

The least enthusiastic people in the chamber were probably members of Bush's own party, who see him as an unalloyed political liability and against whose escalation in Iraq seven powerful Republican senators are now in open, vociferous revolt.

When a president who came to maturity making daily obeisance to west Texas drill derricks sucking oil up out of the Permian Basin starts hailing biodiesel and mumbling about grass clippings as alternative energy, you know it's all over; that the president's policy advisers and speech writers are already sending out their resumes and wondering when to jump ship.

Compounding a wretched evening for the president was a savage answer on behalf of his party by the new Democratic senator from Virginia, James Webb. His nine-minute speech was the most effective I have seen in 30 years of listening to these formal rebuttals.

This former Republican, who served as Reagan's secretary of the Navy, tossed aside the script handed him by the Democratic leadership and gave a precis of the populist stump speech that carried him to a razor-thin victory last November. It was in the idiom of the platform of the Populist Party, written by Ignatius Donnelly in 1882: "The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few from the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes -- tramps and millionaires."

After a caustic description of today's economy, where the top Wall Street players haul home unimaginable billions while the middle class founders into ruin, Webb turned to the war in Iraq. Briskly evoking his father's wartime sacrifices, his own service in Vietnam, his son's present tour as a Marine in Iraq, Webb said implacably what most Democrats shirk: that the war had always been a terrible mistake; that Bush had launched it recklessly and gravely damaged America; that the only sane option was regional diplomacy and prompt withdrawal.

Webb has that anger common to so many Vietnam vets. But whereas with John McCain it's ill contained enough to be downright scary, with Webb it's under control, but still strong enough to create a force field that holds people's attention. I have difficulty imagining Obama or Clinton or Edwards really gripping America's imagination in the next political phase. On Tuesday night's evidence Webb could do it.

© Creators Syndicate

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor   January 28, 2007   (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.