America - Andrew Stephen hears the State of the Union address

The State of the Union address, the first foray of Election 2004, inevitably ended with God, who Bus

Forget Iowa. Forget John Kerry's victory and the ignition of this year's Democratic assault on Boy George. By far the most important political event of the year here so far was Boy George's State of the Union address, which came the evening after the Democrats' first caucuses - deliberately timed to steal the Democrats' thunder and media momentum. Last Tuesday night, Bush had a captive television audience of 60 million and delivered what will turn out to be his most important political speech of the year - at least until he accepts the Republicans' nomination at the party convention in New York come early September. And he duly delivered an oration that launched his re-election campaign, depicting himself as a super-tough but compassionate world statesman who is above the common political fray.

I have to admit that State of the Union addresses are one of those American institutions which still rather bemuse me. There was Boy George at 9.07pm EST last Tuesday, walking down the centre aisle of the House of Representatives' chamber, receiving cheers and back-slapping that put the welcome home of the English rugby team to shame. Everybody who is anybody in Washington was there - not just nearly all congressmen and women of both parties, but Supreme Court justices, all members of the administration (except one - in this case the commerce secretary, Don Evans - who is traditionally stationed elsewhere lest catastrophe strike the event and he/she has to take over the running of the country), and even foreign ambassadors.

I gave up counting the interruptions for applause after ten standing ovations in the first seven minutes.

"America this evening is a nation called to great responsibilities, and we're rising to meet them," is how the address began, heralding a further 54 minutes of well-honed, overpolished cliches that sounded like one soundbite after another: "Americans are proving once again to be the hardest-working people in the world . . . by our will and courage, this danger will be defeated . . . the United States will never be intimidated by thugs and assassins . . . because of American leadership and resolve, the world is getting safer . . . for all who love freedom and peace, the world without Saddam is a better and safer place . . . this great republic will lead the cause of freedom . . . we will finish the historic work of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq . . . America's healthcare system [is] the best in the world . . . our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage." And so on, and on, and on.

So important did Boy George and his political guru, Karl Rove - seen by Democrats as the evil wizard behind Bush's ascension - regard this year's State of the Union address that preparations for it began last October, when the first outlines were drawn up by White House speechwriters. The first meetings about it with Boy George himself came in mid-November, and countless rewrites went on until the last minute on Tuesday night. The weekend before, Condoleezza Rice was working on it at Camp David; Dubbya practised a near-final draft last Monday, using the TelePrompTer he has finally mastered, in the White House cinema (which did not, alas, prevent a few flubs on the night).

Boy George, I suspect, has come to believe his own propaganda that he is a visionary leader and a uniter - although polls depict a country that is still agonisingly split down the middle. There are signs, along with Howard Dean's fading campaign, that the Iraq war is receding as an issue: 56 per cent of Americans continue to believe the US was right to invade Iraq anyway, and a 2-1 majority still strongly supports Bush on national security issues.

But polls also show that Dubbya is losing out fast on domestic issues, on the 2.3 million jobs lost during his administration and the turning of a budget surplus into a large deficit. He retains the broad support of 54 per cent of Americans, but if an election were held now, he would win by only 48 per cent against 46 for an unknown Democratic candidate - an extraordinarily close result given that the candidate has yet to be chosen and yet to reap all the publicity that comes with being the official opponent.

I was struck last Tuesday night by how giddy an experience it must be to deliver a State of the Union address, with all that adulation; only a strong and confident person would not have his head turned by the experience. Following those 54 minutes on the rostrum, Bush finally invoked America's biggest apparent supporter - God. I'm sure that by now Dubbya firmly believes God, too, is a Republican, someone who will guide him straight back into the White House when the nation goes to the polls in November. "May God continue to bless America," Bush intoned at the end of what was blatantly his first foray of Election 2004.

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