The State of the Union address has somehow become shorthand for the president addressing Congress and the nation on his policy initiatives, or discussing important developments "in the news."
On that front, President George W. Bush did nicely last night.
But the address — like the subject matter — is much more than that. As Abraham Lincoln felt, the union is a mystical entity, encompassing the quality of our people above all their virtues and temperament. Indeed, it is interesting — and insightful — that our constitutional creators mandated the president deliver a message on something so lofty sounding as the "state of the union."
So let's reflect for a moment on how impressive has been this true state of the union since Sept. 11. It has been most remarkable, unlike anything in my lifetime.
Americans are more determined, purposeful, patriotic and profound, grateful for the nation's liberties and character. The narcissism of the 1990s, so aptly represented and reinforced by the Clintons, has yielded to a far finer union.
Yesterday, a friend of mine, a conductor in Boston, casually mentioned "the gift of Sept. 11," which initially jarred and angered me. But he went on to explain that since that cataclysmic event, both his performers and his audiences have revealed a depth in sensitivity he had never felt before.
Indeed, it had not existed before. The frivolous me-me 1990s were transformed into the purposeful decade we've entered.
Such transformation has a precedent. The decade of the 1920s was marked by The Great Gatsby and President Warren Harding's overblown Clintonian flourishes about his times "not [of] heroics but healing, not nostrums but normalcy ... not revolution but restoration, not agitation but adjustment ... not surgery but serenity, not the dramatic but the dispassionate" and, finally, "not experiment but equipoise."
That was a vapid time, before the struggles of the 1930s and the triumphs of the 1940s. George Orwell in 1940 wrote an insightful article about the transformation then underway. "Nearly all Western thought since" the First World War, he said, "has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain."
Yet, as Orwell explained, "human beings don't only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth control, and, in general, common sense. They also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty parades ... Whereas socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, has said to people 'I offer you a good time,'" great people at historic times seek more than mere comfort.
They find deep meaning in epic battles for noble causes. First the British people, and then we Americans, became aroused and determined in our epic battles for civilization against the twin totalitarian barbarisms of Nazism and Communism.
Likewise are we aroused today in the epic battle for civilization against the barbarism of international terrorism of radical Islam.
That's why the state of the union is even stronger than Bush extolled last night.
Kenneth Adelman is a frequent guest commentator on Fox News, was assistant to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from 1975 to 1977 and, under President Ronald Reagan, U.N. ambassador and arms-control director. Mr. Adelman is now co-host of TechCentralStation.com.