WASHINGTON - In his State of the Union address, President Bush offered few surprises, other than his weird concern about steroid use among athletes, but he did demonstrate something reassuring.
He conveyed that he has grown into his role. As he strode down the center aisle toward the lectern in the House chamber, greeting members of Congress, Cabinet members and generals, Bush looked the part: dignified, warm, comfortable in his skin, more statesman than cowboy, fully possessed of that rare quality we call class. In a word, he was presidential.
And then there was Iowa. The Democrats have some work to do.
Howard Dean's rant following his third place in the Iowa caucuses - already dubbed the "I Have a Scream" speech - will be forever embedded in the American psyche as the night Dean lost it. His control, his image and probably his nomination.
Pushing up his shirtsleeves and looking like he might bust a carotid artery, Dean began shouting: "We will not quit now or ever!"
"Not only are we going to New Hampshire ... we're going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico, and we're going to California and Texas and New York. And we're going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan. And then we're going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House.
Yes, Dean has duffel bags full of money and thousands of wired Deaniacs, and, yes, things can shift. But, I wouldn't bet on it. No matter the message, the messenger in this case has delivered an image and made an impression that won't soon fade. Dean's disturbing dark side seems too close to the lunatic fringe.
Americans might tolerate human frailties in their presidents. Forgive lapses in judgment or a slippery syntax. But nuts they don't need.
Dean attempted to explain his behavior:
"You've got to have some fun in this business," he said on talk shows following his performance.
That was fun? We can all relate to the occasional meltdown, but most of us try to throw our tantrums after the guests have gone home, the children are asleep, and we've locked ourselves in the bedroom. Spouses optional.
But Dean unleashed his auto-exorcism in plain view of the entire universe, including our fans in the Arab world. And we want them to model their countries after ours? I kept waiting for Dean's head to start spinning as Deaniacs reached for crucifixes.
John Kerry, who should know better, squandered his moment as well, though to a far lesser degree. As the Iowa winner, it was his moment to be statesmanlike. He's a four-term senator, the sudden front runner, a decorated war veteran, a consummate politician and at times a spellbinding speaker.
He won! He did not need to raise his voice, yet he launched into a shrill challenge to Bush.
"I know something about aircraft carriers for real," he shouted. "And if this president and the Republicans want to make this election about national security, then I have three words for them that they'll understand: Bring. It. On!"
Fine. Everybody bring it on and then throw it down. And then can we just talk like grown-ups?
Kerry has that presidential thing in spades if he would relax and be himself. Such rabble-rousing may be inspired by the adrenaline rush of the celebrity instant, but candidates should try to remember that most Americans are not emotionally invested in their high-five moment.
They're not sharing the joy. They're in their family rooms, signing homework, shooing the dog off the couch, and pressing the mute on the remote.
Of the three Iowa finalists, Sen. John Edwards came closest to being presidential. He responded to his second placement with grace, poise, dignity and generosity. An unlikely contender just weeks ago, Edwards has managed to transcend his boyish good looks to demonstrate both substance and style.
And both do matter. These images speak to the meaning and importance of our need to have a president who is indeed presidential - one who conducts himself with dignity, authority and composure. And most important, in a way that won't embarrass us.