January 26, 2004

What Wasn't Said

James Pinkerton analyses president Bush's state of the union address:

Of all the speeches a president delivers, his state of the union address is the speech that is subject to the most behind-the-scenes wrangling. Because nothing gets in to that oration by accident, one can learn a lot about a president's priorities by what's said -- and not said.

Inaugural addresses might be more important, but those speeches tend to be relatively personal -- not so many cooks in the broth. By contrast, every word of the 20 or 30 drafts of an "SOU" is "staffed" across the whole of the executive branch. Every federal powercrat knows that a mention, on national television, of his or her project translates into a whole fiscal year's worth of power, prestige, and pork.

Having worked on four SOU's for President George H.W. Bush, I can well remember the thrill of victory -- and the agony of defeat -- that comes when a precious sentence is included or excluded. And nothing has changed in the last dozen years.

So when President George W. Bush mentioned "taxes" 21 times on Tuesday night, the White House thinks that taxation is not only an important issue, but also a good issue. So, too, with "Iraq," which came up 24 times in the SOU. What else is important to the Bushmen? Well, W. mentioned "jobs" 13 times and "health" -- as in "health care" -- 15 times, underscoring the importance of those twin issues in the '04 scheme of things.

What's another issue to look for in '04? Bush mentioned the word "marriage" on nine different occasions; on seven of those occasions, he was speaking about gay marriage, which he opposes. Is that cheerful news for, say, Pat Robertson? Probably, but on the other hand, the same word-count analysis shows neglect of other "hot button" social issues; Bush didn't mention "abortion" once, nor "life," as in right-to-life.

Indeed, let's take a further look at what was not mentioned -- at the dogs that didn't bark.

For example, although "Saddam" came up five times, and "Al Qaeda" came up three times, "Osama bin Laden" didn't come up once. No point in reminding the voters that he still remains . . . somewhere more than two years after 9-11.