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The Gist: Shame of the Union
A Radioactive Presidency Down to Its Half-Life

I’m writing with President Bush delivering his State of the Union address in one ear and my two-year-old son clapping idly in the other. He’s not clapping for the president. He knows better, even at his tender age. He’s merely learning to keep time with the rhythms of delusion. He has to. His generation will be contending with the consequences of this president and his 300-odd complying applause signs in the House and Senate for years, if we, if these children of ours, make it that far before Bush’s descendants find the means to send them to war. Where will that splendid little theater be in fifteen, twenty years? India’s Ganges Valley? China’s Gobi desert? Canada? I’m assuming that America will be relevant enough to still be sending contingents to the four corners of the world. That defies the strategic math of a nation facing a $10 trillion debt by the time Bush leaves office.

I hear the president talk of peace between three bursts of applause even as he refers, again, to that Marine killed recently in Fallujah, the one who left behind a letter saying how proud he was to have died for the cause. The soldier has become a mascot for the country’s jingoes and jabbermouths, but the irony, not of the letter but of the president celebrating a soldier fallen in Fallujah, passed over naturally unnoticed. Wasn’t that the city the Marines “liberated” in the largest sustained assault since, what, that pointless battle in the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965? “The end of irony and satire and superficiality were at hand,” one writer echoing many wrote in the New York Times two months after 9/11. Irony didn’t die that day, of course. It mutated, as if radiated by a fresh new strain of plutonium. Congress is aglow with it today, has been since that day Bush stood on the rubble of the Twin Towers, a bullhorn in one hand and a pair of handcuffs for the world in the other. No wonder he’s calling for a resumption of nuclear power plant construction.

Here he is, winning applause for bashing entitlements in the same sentence as he asks for his tax cuts to be made permanent, applause for blabbering on about a country “at war” (only in America does a president get applause, passionate applause, for pleading to have his wars taken seriously), applause as he hails the judiciary’s lurch back to the days of William Howard Taft, when justice was measured by the size of dividends' girth.

Yet at the end of the day there was a flicker of that old-time irony: Samuel Alito was confirmed, Coretta Scott King died. She knew what was up. She’d had enough.

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