Bush’s State of the Union message last night was the usual Rorschach test that people tend to view according to their previous conceptions of Bush and his policies. His basic message: Iraq’s doing relatively well, we need to cut pork.
As far as the speech itself went—well, President Bush is hardly known for his oratory. But I can’t think of anyone lately, with the possible exception of Tony Blair, who is.
Reagan had the delivery and the spirit, and some fine turns of phrase, but even he was hardly Churchill or Lincoln. But then again, who could be? Styles have changed, and the idea of “statesman” has morphed into the far more plebian “politician.”
Bill Clinton’s State of the Union Addresses struck me as laundry lists, despite the fact that some regarded him as a master politician. Obama spouts new age-y platitudes; he’s got the energy, but not the gravitas. Hillary? Fahgetaboutit. Romney reminds me of an actor Hollywood would choose to play a President in the movies, rather than the real thing. Giuliani was eloquent in his post-9/11 speeches when under the sway of the emotional wrench the event represented, but I haven’t heard that part of him lately. McCain is good with a quip, and his speeches are serviceable enough, but that’s about it.
One phrase in Bush’s address last night stuck me as emblematic of the changes in rhetoric from the past:
We must do the difficult work today, so that years from now people will look back and say that this generation rose to the moment, prevailed in a tough fight, and left behind a more hopeful region and a safer America.
Compare and contrast (from FDR’s speech to the 1936 Democratic convention):
There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.
Bush, or perhaps any politician, would have trouble delivering those lines today. It’s not just that FDR had the sort of lilting patrician accent and bearing that is no more. It’s that the notions themselves seem both too dramatic and too sentimental at the same time. We have become more simplistic and distrusting of soaring phrases, and our rhetoric has dumbed down and become more “safe” (read: generic) to match the trend.