State of Illusion

Pity the poor presidential speechwriter. Each year, as a cold gray sky lowers over theWhite House, the State of the Union address also looms. Once, a captive television audience could be taken for granted, but now, when cable makes it possible to eschew the pre-empted networks for reruns of "CSI," it's hard to say if there will even be warm bodies in the cheap seats at home. And there is that pesky introductory sentence, the one that traditionally goes something like this:

"My fellow Americans, the state of the Union is... "

Confident. Strong. Stronger than ever.

Dire. Disturbing. Disastrous.

Those last three are the ones the speechwriter will never use. But at the moment they're far closer to the truth.

Let's begin with the war in Iraq. Some complain it was poorly planned. The truth is that it wasn't planned at all. Now that Saddam Hussein is gone, it's hard to understand how an additional year or two of casualties will make a difference in the outcome for the average Iraqi. There's been a flurry of recent rhetoric about a schedule, an endgame, an exit strategy. Some members of Congress and even some in the administration figured out that was necessary; the polls told them so. The result is that sometime in the foreseeable future the war in Iraq will end, not with a bang but with a whimper, having created an entire new generation of terrorists galvanized by an incursion not even its creators can deconstruct convincingly.

The war at home, on the other hand, has not been joined, except for the war on civil liberties, in which the administration justified illegal wiretaps in the name of national security. (Big Brother is indeed watching.) Meanwhile, there's been little listening to an entire section of the country laid waste by Hurricane Katrina. Block upon block of one of America's great cities, New Orleans, looks like a set piece for a sci-fi film about a nuclear blast. Instead of creating and leading an aggressive and innovative Marshall Plan for the area, calling together the corporate executives and lobbyists who are his most loyal constituency and who actually know how to get things done, the president went AWOL: absent without leadership.

Congress is now trying to figure out what went wrong, and the White House has stepped up--not to save the region, but to save itself. Officials are claiming they can't release documents about the bureaucratic disaster because of executive privilege. Americans of a certain age are familiar with executive privilege; it's what Richard Nixon cited when he was using the White House as his own private political boiler room. The result is that Americans are on notice that if their community is destroyed, the government will work hardest to save its own skin.

Of course, most Americans have come to realize that in a hundred little ways. There's a critical disconnect between the people in Washington and the people elsewhere. It is occasioned by the knee-jerk schisms along party lines, the bloviating speechifying that is so set to music (or TV time) it seems computer-generated, the public political dance of the sort that just took place between the Senate Judiciary Committee and Supreme Court nominee, as scripted, surreal and empty as a bad experimental play. Just consider this: the White House had a candidate for the high court so spectacular that it wanted to be certain that no ordinary person could get an idea of where he stood on anything.

There is also a schism between how most people live and how Washington power types behave, between second jobs and pink slips, cronyism and junkets. And there is a sense of the good life built on sand. Personal savings are at a record low. Household debt is at a record high. If housing values drop, the junk bond of our time is the suburban house bought with a no-money-down mortgage during the boom.

Pity the poor speechwriter. This is a moment that calls for eloquence and audacity, but this president has a knack for thinking small. He is, after all, the man who first greeted Katrina, the greatest national disaster in the country's history, by talking about pounds of ice. Wrong thirst. The young, the poor, the outsourced, the uneducated, the overqualified: so many Americans have this sense of profound malaise. Of course, that's the ailment that dare not speak its name (and not just because the word is French); look what happened to Jimmy Carter when he dared to talk of a national "crisis of confidence." He found himself traded in for the so-much-cheerier "morning in America."

It's not morning. It's not even afternoon. There's not much union in the state, just one fissure after another. Of course, that won't play, so instead it's more of the same: new programs that feel old, old programs that feel over and the ubiquitous assertion that we will prevail. Just for a moment forget the combat deaths, the killer hurricanes, the illegal wiretapping, the internecine warfare, the political indictments, the overdue bills, the clueless leaders, and repeat after me: Confident. Strong. Stronger than ever. Do you feel it? Do you feel it? Nope, me neither.