Timing the State of the Union

by Micah on January 21, 2004

Patrick Belton, over at OxBlog, has this analysis of President Bush’s State of the Union address:

If the amount of time given over to a single idea reflects its relative importance in the State of the Union speech (a reasonable assumption), then the most important themes in tonight’s speech, in descending order, are: the need to commit adequate resources to the military for the war on terror (87 seconds); that government will act against single-sex marriage (84 seconds); the administration’s commitment to strengthening families and religious communities, and to combat juvenile use of drugs (78 seconds); the government’s commitment to education and excellence for each child in America (72 seconds); that the world without Saddam is a better and safer place (69 seconds). The closing matter took 78 seconds, centered around the idea that we are living in historic times.

So, at least on this view, what we should take away from Bush’s speech is roughly: we live in historic times in which our major priorities are fighting terrorists, gays and atheists. And who says there’s no culture war in America?

UPDATE: While I’m at it, the funniest moment in the speech had to be when Bush said:

Key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire next year.
(APPLAUSE)

A big bonus for the speechwriter who left a fat pause after that sentence!

{ 15 comments }

1

James Russell 01.21.04 at 6:19 am

Key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire next year.
(APPLAUSE)

Eh. I’d be withholding my applause until I knew what sort of paranoia was going to be legislated in its place.

2

raj 01.21.04 at 1:00 pm

It is interesting that John Hinckley is being let out of jail. Hmmm……

3

Tom T. 01.21.04 at 1:50 pm

I suspect that the time differences among ideas that you cite are not statistically significant.

Moreover, it is perhaps a reasonable assumption that the amount of time devoted to an issue is also reflective of the complexity of the issue or the lack of policy coherence toward it (i.e., it takes longer to explain). Hence, if one were committed to a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, one could make that point relatively quickly. If, however, one wants to express opposition, chastise the judiciary, and allude to the constitutional process without actually articulating policies that might be overly controversial, that takes longer.

And your point about a culture war seems a bit overheated. Certainly, he came down against gay marriage, but there are awfully few places in this world where gay marriage is legal. If that’s symptomatic of a culture war, then it’s a world war. Moreover, in announcing his opposition, he was careful not to present it as you do, as a crusade against gays in general: “The outcome of this debate is important, and so is the way we conduct it. The same moral tradition that defines marriage also teaches that each individual has dignity and value in God’s sight.”

As for the war against atheists, I have trouble finding that in the speech. All I see with respect to religion is an affirmation that Islam is compatible with democracy, an affirmation of the good works done by faith-based charities, and a generic affirmation of “fundamental institutions such as families and schools and religious congregations.” If you see a declaration of war somewhere in the speech, maybe you could lay it out more explicitly.

As for your assertion that “fighting terrorists” is simply part of a culture war, I’m not sure how to respond. Certainly, I think that you’re correct insofar that Bush intended to portray “fighting terrorists” as a major priority, but I also think that every Democratic candidate for president would agree with that bald statement. Obviously, there are enormous disagreements about how to oppose terrorism, but I don’t see that disagreement over methods as a “culture war.” Very few responsible people are objectively supportive of al-Qaeda, after all.

4

gowingz 01.21.04 at 2:56 pm

How many times did the President use the words “thugs,” “assassins,” and “killers”?

Loved the Patriot Act applause, too… Sounded more like booing to me though…

5

Ophelia Benson 01.21.04 at 3:21 pm

Well, here’s a bit of the war on atheists right here –

“The same moral tradition that defines marriage also teaches that each individual has dignity and value in God’s sight.”

Peachy. But I want nothing to do with any moral tradition that relies on drivel about who is what in the sight of a fictitious entity, thank you, especially since it is always open to people who argue that way to say the opposite: that some people are indeed anathema in “God’s” sight.

Bush conducts an implicit war on atheists every time he opens his mouth.

6

Mario 01.21.04 at 3:55 pm

“Bush conducts an implicit war on atheists every time he opens his mouth.”

Sounds more like a persecution complex to me.

7

Ophelia Benson 01.21.04 at 4:20 pm

No, just hyperbole.

But really. What if Bush said “each individual has dignity and value in Allah’s sight”? Or “each individual has dignity and value in Jahweh’s sight”? Or Aruman’s, or Krishna’s, or the Tooth Fairy’s, or Harry Potter’s? Would that be swell too?

Either we treat people as equal before the law for secular reasons, or we don’t. Secularists (and a good few religious people too, actually) think that religious sanctions are not a reliable basis for public policy. I do not feel reassured to hear that Bush in his wisdom has decided that God wants him to treat people as equals. He could decide the opposite tomorrow, and who or what could gainsay him?

8

Paul 01.21.04 at 5:13 pm

If, however, one wants to express opposition, chastise the judiciary, and allude to the constitutional process without actually articulating policies that might be overly controversial, that takes longer.

Well … okay, then, as long as he doesn’t actually want to do anything.

9

phil 01.21.04 at 6:05 pm

What about when Bush knocked Cheney’s water over? That had to be pretty damn funny.

10

phil 01.21.04 at 6:07 pm

What about when Bush knocked Cheney’s water over? That had to be pretty damn funny.

11

Sigivald 01.21.04 at 11:48 pm

Ophelia: Bush said “God”, not “Jesus”. God is generally recognised as an adequate generic term for the putative Deity.

I’m an atheist (little-a, and admittedly more and more sympathetic with religious people every year, if not religion), and I don’t feel the slightest bit threatened, sorry.

Further, you don’t seem to have any grasp of how actual religious people view God’s “commands”. You say Bush “could” decide tomorrow that God wants him to not treat people as equals. Well, I suppose that is technically true – though it’s equally true of someone who claimed to have come to that belief through any other process at all, since anyone can change their mind, no matter what reasons they gave for their previous beliefs.

However, Bush is not a new convert to his religion, and his beliefs about how God would want the Law of the United States to treat people are unlikely to change tomorrow; I’d argue probably less likely than beliefs grounded in another source than belief in unchanging divine principles.

If there was any evidence that Bush was using “God’s Will” as a flexible excuse for changing policies, that would be another matter – but I am aware of no such evidence. That various people throughout history have used “God said so” to excuse all sorts of things, and have changed their minds without changing their justification does not nullify or corrupt a religious justification for policy, any more than the fickleness and abuse of “rational” policies over the past centuries tarnishes the use of reason; any source of policy can be abused – this does not mean that the sources are themselves invalid.

In summary: Phobic reactions to religiosity are not the same as reasoned criticism; if Bush reacted to gay people the way you’re reacting to his religion, you’d call him (rightly) a homophobe. Mote, beam, etc.

(This is not meant to reflect strictly or harshly on Ophelia; I’ve seen it from dozens of people, and while I believe they’re wrong, I don’t think they truly mean ill.

There is, sadly, a strain of thought on the Left that religion is more or less what homosexuality is to a similar strain on the Right – an offense against decency that no sane/intelligent/right-thinking person would condone or accept. Though I confess those on the Right (with some virulent exceptions) seem to be more compassionate and charitable and less condescending about it; they at least talk about loving the sinner, while the Left critique of religion seems to involve either disdain or faux-pity for the religious. But I don’t claim to have a fair sampling of either side to make a claim that such sweeping generalisations are Correct. But I can talk about my observations as such, I think.)

12

alan 01.22.04 at 12:13 am

…and the award for the most irony…
(On Gay marrages)
“…the peoples voice must be heard. If judges insist on imposing their arbitrary will upon the people…”

Isn’t that how he got his job? The peoples voices were not that important then.

13

Reg 01.22.04 at 3:34 am

II don’t see why that was funny. I think it was intended to create the moment where Bush can then turn to the Dems and say “but terrorism isn’t set to expire on that date”. It seemed pretty effective to me.

14

Sigivald 01.22.04 at 8:52 pm

Alan: The people’s voices were important in exactly the way the Electoral system means them to be, as spelled out in that old-fashioned non-Progressive “Constiution” thing that boring old people are always going on about.

Oh, sure, perhaps you mean the way the Supreme Court made Florida follow its own laws? Or the way selective recounting of Some People’s Votes wasn’t allowed?

Come off it. The “Bush stole the election” schtick was old two years ago, and it’s as false now as it was then. “Move on”, as they say.

15

Ophelia Benson 01.23.04 at 2:22 am

Sigivald,

Homosexuality is a terrible analogy. Religion has intellectual content, it’s a cognitive matter, it can be correct or incorrect. I feel no obligation whatever to give it a free pass on the basis that it’s an identity issue of some sort, that it’s somehow ‘like’ race or sexual orientation. It’s not. It gets a free pass because people don’t want to hurt the feelings of believers, but that’s a mistake, in my view.

I don’t know why you talk about being ‘threatened’ – I don’t think I said anything about being ‘threatened.’ That’s not what I’m talking about at all.

“Bush said “God”, not “Jesus”. God is generally recognised as an adequate generic term for the putative Deity.”

Gosh, really? I know that. So what? However generic it is, it’s still a fictitious entity that people pretend is real.

(It’s odd how many atheists fall all over themselves to be nice to religion and how very seldom religion returns the favor.)

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