TCS Daily

What Wasn't Said

By James Pinkerton - January 23, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

Similarly, although Bush mentioned "democracy" in the context of Iraq and the Middle East on four occasions, other words with great relevance to the chaotic situation in that war-zone of a country -- "Shi'i," "Sunni," "Kurds" -- weren't broached. As for other parts of the Middle East, "Israel" and "Palestinians" didn't rate a single utterance. Indeed, neither "Muslim" nor "Islam" came up. Such omissions might give one the feeling that while the President's vision of the Middle East is morally clear, it lacks some of the nuance needed to fully explain -- or understand -- what's going on over there.

Some word-watchers might wonder why the president didn't mention "environment," or "AIDS," or "civil rights," but maybe we could dwell instead on a few examples of rhetorical absence-of-presence.

Just last week, the President made a big speech about space exploration. But if space was so important to him, how come the word "space" didn't cross his lips on Monday night, when he had the country's undivided -- except for those watching the WB network -- attention? Nor were the words "moon," "Mars," or "NASA" to be heard. This space-silence is a sure signal that Bush doesn't really have much interest in space; in the months to come, nobody inside the Beltway is going to be able to say, with any conviction, "The President will go to the wall for this NASA appropriation." So much for the idea that GWB is another JFK; the 35th president was given not only to waxing poetic about space as a "new ocean" that must be explored, but he also meant business about winning the space race against the Soviets, all the way to the moon.

The 43rd president mentioned "biotechnology" once, citing it as a source of future jobs, but he was silent on the critical topic of stem cell research -- which would seem to be the key to the next biotech revolution. It might be just as well that he didn't mention stem cells, because whatever he might have said would probably only accelerate the flight of that industry offshore -- and why call attention to capital-flighting, jobs-offshoring Luddism?

Other issues, too, went unheralded. As for the word "offshore," Bush didn't mention it once. Yet one needn't be a protectionist to notice that something tech-tonic is happening to the American cyber-economy; Forrester Research says that 400,000 high tech jobs have gone offshore already, projecting that another 3.3 million will depart by 2015. To be sure, the doom-and-gloomers, who decry the "creative destruction" of the economy, have almost always been proven wrong in the past. No doubt Bush figures that he can get re-elected without getting into this difficult issue -- and he's probably right.

But if W. were out to truly assess the state of the union, and all the threats and opportunities it faces, he would be talking about this issue. Instead, by his silence, the "offshoring" issue is being captured by the Democrats; watch for it to heat up in the years -- and elections -- to come.

Other looming concerns were also left unremarked. For instance, Bush didn't mention "intellectual property" once. He seems confident -- way too confident -- that the great engine of American wealth creation will go on forever, even as the legal underpinnings of that revolution continue to erode. To put it bluntly, if America neglects the continuous protection of copyrights worldwide, much of the fabulous wealth of this country could be downloaded and pirated away. As I argued recently, the story of the rise and fall of Manaus, Brazil, will not be the last sad saga to be told about vanished wealth.

Finally, Bush didn't use the word "robot." To be sure, 'bots are not on the front burner, but maybe they should be -- because the techno-critters are poised to take a giant quantum leap. Sony has gotten most of the attention on robotics of late, for its Aibo and Asimos that can vaguely mimic canine and human body movements and even emotions; most Americans might expect to own one to help, say, make coffee in the next few decades.

But a much more profound shift is coming, and it's coming from offshore. Nature reports that a team of scientists at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth and the University of Manchester have created a computer-robot combo that can perform its own lab experiments. And so computers are continuing on the path toward self-awareness; we are now in the era of the von Neumann Machine -- the robot that can create another robot. Back in the '40s, the great mathematician John von Neumann proposed a "kinematic self-reproducing automaton," which he dubbed, prospectively and hypothetically, a "Universal Constructor." And now, here we are, edging that much closer to robots that can universally construct themselves, ad infinitum.

Two points need to be made here, since Bush didn't make them.

First, Americans need to remember that there are no final victories in the struggle for maximum international competitiveness. If the US neglects Neumann-otics, we could find ourselves looking ahead and seeing only the dust left by some foreign 'bot -- regular-sized, or maybe, nano-sized.

Second, if the American political establishment is silent and passive on this issue, the intellectual-political void will be filled by dystopians. In recent years, the Luddite likes of Bill Joy and Michael Crichton have dominated the debate over nanonics, a burgeoning subset of von Neumannism. Almost certainly, fears about nanonics are misplaced, but somebody with credibility needs to say so; otherwise their Joy-less vision could prevail, and nanonics, in particular, could suffer the fate of the nuclear power industry. And if that happens, then the State of the Union won't be so great, no matter what the SOU declares.

At one level, it's hard to take this president, or any president, to task for the things that he did not say in his SOU. After all, there's plenty going on, and Bush covered a lot of ground in his 5300 words. But the true test of leadership is dealing with those challenges that are unseen, as well as seen. And sometimes good leadership means speaking about issues, too, before most people have even heard of them. In fact, what better definition of leadership could there be?


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