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Fate of the Union

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Forgive the President for appearing exceedingly relaxed during his last State of the Union. Sporting the air of resignation that a student council president uses when reminding revelers to drive home safely from the prom -- long after the cool kids have moved on to hotel rooms and tomorrow’s conquests -- President George W. Bush struck both accusatory and pleading tones while addressing both houses of Congress in his bid to make the most of his final year in office. With no GOP presidential candidates in attendance (McCain didn’t bother to return from stumping in Florida), Hillary Clinton chumming with Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, and Barack Obama sitting side-by-side with newfound cheerleader Ted Kennedy (and one seat away from Colorado’s Ken Salazar), all that was missing from Bush’s 53-minute lame-duck speech was Bob Dylan in the First Lady’s Box whistling “The Times They Are A-Changin.’”

If you were playing a State of the Union Drinking Game, good morning. This year was certainly a challenge, by the numbers, what with 70 interruptions for applause, including 37 mostly partisan standing ovations, 15 usages and derivations of “tax,” nearly 40 mentions of Iraq and Iraqis, and seven mentions of health care and health insurance. The President didn’t approach some of his personal bests -- 86 applause-o-pauses in 2001, “tax” used 30 times in ’01 and “terror” breaking out for 36 mentions in 2002 -- but he did venture into relatively uncharted territory in global warming, earmark spending and overseas trade, sandwiched somewhere in between tax cuts and wire taps.

In the double-bonus audience-participation category, Bush’s veiled attack on Dems -- “Some in Washington argue that letting tax relief expire is not a tax increase” -- drew the first of several on-camera eye-rolls and smirks from Representative Charlie Rangel, ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee. Similarly, the President’s remarks on providing affordable health care, “The best way to achieve that goal is by expanding consumer choice, not governmental control,” found two stony-faced, immobile statues temporarily filling the seats of Senators Clinton and Obama. Rangel, the tenured 37-year House vet, added a full belly-laugh when the President included “emissions-free nuclear power” in his alternative energy package, and Teddy Kennedy put his commendable jowls on full display in the “Is Ted Dead?” perennial SOTU bonus question. Meanwhile, in the something-for-everyone round, Speaker Nancy Pelosi had the best night of the lot, alternating between frenetic, sycophantic leaps to her feet in applause, miming strained smiles at a particularly androidish Dick Cheney, and her sour-seed, puckered Dickensian schoolmarm face that flashed beady-eyed menace towards the GOP contingent.

Naturally, any SOTU Drinking Game invariably comes down to the all-important vocabulary wildcard category to decide who wins, or more aptly, who loses least. Bush remained relaxed enough throughout his speech to try his hand at an IRS joke -- “Others have said they would personally be happy to pay higher taxes. I welcome their enthusiasm, and I am pleased to report that the IRS accepts both checks and money orders,” badum-ching! -- and this foreign-policy mouthful on Columbian trade: “If we fail to pass this agreement, we will embolden the purveyors of false populism in our hemisphere.” As for the audience, double-bonus sound bites included Hillary saying she’s just “having a good time” on the campaign trail and Obama reminding a supporter to “…next time, tell me to wear my long johns when I’m there!” at an undisclosed frigid primary rally.

If you were still conscious at the end, you might have staged a late rally through the Bilingualism Bonus as Bush busted out his Tex-Mex Spanish on the way out of the House at the conclusion of his speech and signed dozens of autographs for Dems and GOPers alike. One supporter gushed, “Sir, you make me proud to be an American.” As Bush passed, another asked, “You going to come back next year?”

The President, without skipping a beat in his cursive script, replied. “I doubt it.” – Joe Horton

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