News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion


State of Union delivered by president, not cowboy

President Bush attended his version of Appomattox Court House at the State of the Union Address on Tuesday. He has lost his congressional majority. He has lost the support of U.S. voters. But like Gen. Robert E. Lee, he came off as a gentleman.

He began by lavishing praise on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat even Democrats strain to appreciate. He then complimented the Democratic majority. One can say he had no choice — the Dems have the power, after all — but the same could be said of Gen. Lee. Being gracious in defeat is no easy task, and President Bush handled it well.

The president managed some silliness, too. His call for neither animosity nor amnesty in dealing with illegal immigrants begged the question of where he was hiding the fine print defining "amnesty." Chastising a new Congress for budget overruns largely caused by his administration and almost entirely caused — in recent years — by a Republican congressional majority, was petty.

Indeed, his speech showed a remarkable departure from the "Reagan Republican" model he once referenced with regularity. He barely gave lip service to states' rights, instead piling on to a heaping federal bureaucracy that seems to enamour both parties.

His approach to education is to continue oppressive federal control, including the requirement that students spend massive amounts of time taking federally mandated tests instead of learning, under the banner of his crippled No Child Left Behind Act. His approach to health care is to use federal dollars to make sure individual states innovate using private health insurance rather than other options. He wants our standing federal army to have more troops.

The federal presence was particularly evident in his energy proposals, which would mandate more alternative fuels and would require more efficient automobiles.

That said, though, his discussion of energy showed promise. Here in Decatur, a city popular among prospective ethanol-plant startups, we have sniffed the downsides of corn-based ethanol. Many studies suggest converting corn to fuel uses more energy than it produces, and the environmental impact of the production facilities are dramatic. It also puts pricing pressure on one of our most important food crops. Mr. Bush spoke of ethanol, but significantly made no mention of corn as a source. Wood chips, grasses and agricultural waste, but not corn. That may suggest an evolving view that runs counter to one of the strongest U.S. lobbies.

He also mentioned nuclear power and combined that reference to a push for improved battery technology for automobiles. The effort to continue running our transportation industry on liquid fuel is fraught with peril. The president's statements suggest a willingness to encourage a transportation system that relies upon electricity as the portable energy of choice.

Maybe most remarkable in his speech was the acknowledgement that global warming is something other than a myth. Technology, he said, "will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change." Is an announcement about the Kyoto Protocol forthcoming?

Mr. Bush is still Mr. Bush, and he showed no sign of compromise on what we suspect is an ill-advised surge in troops in Iraq. Efforts by Congress to dictate military tactics through budget control, however, would do more to sabotage the war effort than fix it. We suspect that Congress would be well advised to pass the necessary appropriations and give the president one more chance to salvage what has become a costly quagmire in the Middle East.

Mr. Bush was presidential. He did not go out of his way to antagonize our enemies; instead of talking of an "axis of evil," he mentioned a "quartet" of international allies. He spoke intelligently about the relationship between Sunni and Shia Islam, and managed to avoid any reference to the Crusades.

Maybe, at long last, Mr. Bush — chastised by the loss of a Republican majority, by horrible poll results and the loss of thousands of soldiers — has removed his cowboy hat and taken on the dignity his office demands.

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