Prime-time Presidential addresses are good for declaring war on enemies foreign and domestic. We've had the War on Poverty, on crime, on drugs, and these exercises are often as much about defining a presidency as defeating an enemy. So it tells you something about the times we live in that George W. Bush's first big televised chat with the nation was not about war or welfare or weapons systems, but about bioethics. And it tells you even more about Bush that he chose to redefine his presidency through an issue he barely mentioned during the campaign, one so complex it can be discussed only in full paragraphs, not quick slogans. No wonder the White House wanted to be sure everyone noticed.
Until last week, Bush had steered clear of the bully pulpit. He plays the man of action, not words, and has inherited his father's suspicion of gaudy soul searching. Where Bill Clinton seized every chance to open up his brain on national television, take you through every twist in his thought process, Bush has avoided every such opportunity. But that changed for a moment last week when he brought down the lights, turned up the volume and built the suspense around his decision, as if to say, I am a man capable of subtle thought, not just ideological reflex; I can balance ways and means and right and wrong.
Bush has compared the decision about federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research to a decision to commit troops to battle. This is biology spilled down a slippery slope; the arguments divide and subdivide and seemed to promise only injury to a rookie President not known for taking on the hardest moral and intellectual questions of our time. But far from ducking, week after week White House aides raised the stakes. When they saw him engage the issue so deeply, they realized that stem-cell research was not just a tough call but a fresh chance--an opportunity to reintroduce Bush to America as an honest broker and surefooted guide who could reach a place of clean common sense. His address Thursday night raised all the hard questions without answering any of them: Is an embryo growing in a Petri dish the same as one growing in a womb? Is it O.K. to experiment on it if it's going to be destroyed anyway? When they grapple with these questions, politicians and scientists are often accused of playing God. On issues this morally and scientifically mysterious, Bush knew, humility was the better part of wisdom. He avoided playing national priest (relying purely on Scripture) or capitalist tool (letting the markets decide). Instead, he played lifeguard: These are dangerous waters, he warned. Mind where you swim when you go looking for treasure.
And so he decided to proceed, but very carefully. By allowing federal funding for research only on stem cells that have already been harvested, he could argue that he was upholding his campaign promise not to promote research that requires destroying embryos. But Congress, science, Bush's own logic--or some combination of all three--could quickly overtake the President's decision. If the 65 Bush-approved stem-cell colonies aren't enough to find the limits of this new science, pressure to expand the research will be intense. By opening the door to research on cells derived from embryos in the past, Bush may have made it harder to draw a bright line against cells harvested in the future.