$10 million to give this speech

Saturday, February 2, 2002

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Bob Holden raised and spent $10 million to be elected governor.

On Wednesday, he must have wondered why.

He stood before a joint session of the General Assembly, ready to deliver his State of the State speech, and everyone in the building knew it would be nothing but bad news.

Try bleak.

I've gone to Jefferson City to listen to eight State of the State speeches, and this was the first one to sound like an elegy.

Last year, Holden's inaugural speech ran 55 minutes and was brimming with ideas, initiatives and bold promises of leadership.

He spoke of a "defining moment in our state's history," of a new push to make life better for Missourians. After decrying that the state's transportation problems had been put off too long "because no one was willing to take the lead on a solution," Holden said, "I am prepared to take that lead."

The cover of the printed version of that speech features a full-color photo of the Capitol awash in the glow of fireworks.

This year's cover is printed in a subdued blue framing four small black-and-white photos. The 40-minute speech focused on education, the budget and homeland security. A "new century of opportunities" has been replaced with "meeting our challenges together." Moving forward has been replaced by staying afloat.

Holden devoted almost 500 words to describing astronaut Linda Godwin's perseverance in the face of great odds. Transportation doesn't get one word.

Nor will you find a mention anywhere in the speech of saving jobs at the Ford factory in St. Louis, dealing with Boeing's loss of the F-35 fighter contract, boosting tourism travel after Sept. 11 or life-science research, one of Holden's pet projects.

It must have taken great sacrifice by Holden to leave all of that out. Some politicians enter public service because they have the charisma and golden tongue to inspire followers. They leave details to others. That's not Holden. No one would describe him as charismatic. He fits the category of policy wonk -- he immerses himself in ideas and details.

Yet there was precious little of that in Wednesday's speech. There were no new ideas to get excited about, only challenges to fret over.

Because there was so little substance in the speech, I was surprised, when I reviewed my notes, to find that Holden actually was interrupted by applause five more times this year than last. But this applause was tepid, restrained. Twice, a Holden cadence was greeted by someone clapping one time.

Grim.

A State of the State speech is not a Super Bowl, where a certain number of standing ovations scores a victory. But it can set the tone for a legislative session. It can be an opportunity to talk about what government can do better. It cam rally support to the governor's agenda. It is a high-profile opportunity to assert leadership.

On Jan. 23, none of that happened -- unless leadership consists of a call to withdraw 88 percent of the state's savings account to prop up the budget, or setting a solemn tone to keep the legislature's natural impulses in check.

Times have shackled Bob Holden's natural impulses. For just a moment, I felt empathy for him. All that effort to win an election, and this is what he's stuck with.

Robert Leger is the editorial-page editor of the Springfield News-Leader.

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