Paul Greenberg

My robe gonna fit me well,

Tried it on at the gates of Hell,

Keep your hand on the plow,

Hold on!

-Negro spiritual

You could hear the slight weariness, the semi-artificial cheer, the hurry-slowly tempo in Tony Snow's voice. The president's always pressed-for-time-and-running-late spokesperson was conducting still another pre-State of the Union conference call Tuesday afternoon at about 3:30 Washington compressed time. He was talking to a passel of us editorial writers in the hinterlands, but even out here his boss's poll numbers were sinking almost as low as Harry Truman's during the lowest, most discouraging point in the seemingly endless Korean War.

Tony Snow was going right down the president's formal domestic agenda from CAFE standards to Doing Something About Entitlements, and trying to make it all sound new and hopeful. Even though all of us on the line knew that few if any of these proposals had a chance in hell or a Democratic Congress.

Once again the president's man was doing his duty, and not just dutifully but zestfully. He was speaking for an administration that, like the one before it, had lost control of Congress and now, entering its seventh year, is just going through the motions. At least when it comes to the usual grab bag of domestic reforms.

My only question during the conference call: Will the president say anything new about Iraq? Tony Snow's answer, though spirited, was, in essence, No. But he said it in a very positive way.

And yet, when the president got to that part of his speech Tuesday night, there

was something new about him, mainly his chastened manner. He was more impressive than he had been in his spread-eagle mode a couple of States of the Union back, when he was in full Wilsonian flight, about to remake the whole world, including all of Dar-al-Islam, as a Jeffersonian democracy. George W. has sobered up considerably since, and the change is a decided improvement.

This time there was none of that Pollyannish The State of the Union is Sound and Everything Is Coming Up Stars and Stripes, Mission Accomplished business. Instead, he began: "This rite of custom brings us together at a defining hour - when decisions are hard and courage is tested."

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.