To all who tuned into George W. Bush’s State of the Union address last week, I am so, so sorry. But are you sure you deserved better?

A column that ran in Friday’s paper (“A review of the dismal State of the Union,” 1/23) had several important criticisms of the speech. Yet more than the comical aspects of Howard Dean’s post-Iowa rant and my disappointment with the whole SOTU charade, I watched the address with a growing sense of frustration in the country’s outlook on government of late.

Firstly, the message in Bush’s unconvincing delivery was, based on the momentous events of 2003, utterly incomplete. The speech, combative and divisive in tone, served to highlight the hard-right tack the current administration has embraced. Secondly, and more worrisome, was the beige, unenthusiastic public response to such an extreme talk.

On a widely circulated joke Web site, rules for a State of the Union drinking game were posted. Participants took a sip of beer when buzzwords like “terrorism,” “weapons of mass destruction,” and “bipartisanship” (two shots, naturally) left Bush’s lips. Tellingly, anyone playing along Tuesday night would have gotten tipsier from the president’s mangled “nukular” (three times in under one minute) than “Osama bin Laden” (conspicuously absent).

The country should be upset about more than missing out on a few drinks. This omission was crucial. Perhaps our president has forgotten what started this spurious, unending war on terror in the first place, but many Americans remember Sept. 11 and the specter of bin Laden all too well. With pursuit diluted by a new, tangential war, Osama is getting farther, more deliberate … and louder. You can now catch him on Al Jazeera, out of the cave and spewing his hateful message while walking in the sunlight. Next we’ll see him wandering the Pyramids or posing in front of the Kremlin. Before we start selling T-shirts for Osama’s World Tour, here’s a tip for the CIA and FBI: He’ll be the 6’5” Arab on dialysis.

By all indications, the administration seems to think the American attention span is goldfish-short. Did I blink, or did Bush really spend equally long discussing steroid use in public schools as he did championing a constitutional amendment to quash gay marriage? Since when are steroids blowing up national headlines? Irrespective of personal views on the subjects of civil unions or drug use, the statements, taken together, were at best a gross miscalculation of public opinion, and at worst, a mockery of the collective intelligence of Americans. Both instances deserve consequences.

But what really happened? Nothing. CNN flashed Tom Brady, and in the Democratic rebuttal, Capitol Hill Ken and Barbie (Nancy Pelosi and Tom Daschle) didn’t address gay marriage, let alone touch the hilarious “weapons-of-mass-destruction-related-program-activities” doublespeak. The networks ought to be ashamed, and the unimaginative content and deferential manner of the Democrats were a turnoff, even for this avowed liberal loyalist.

More than the flaccid responses of Democrats and the media, the public’s lackadaisical approach to democracy — its apathetic non-questioning of governmental policies — seems to have bred the political climate in which our president could so blatantly pierce the boundaries of prudence and good political taste.

This is not to say America needs collar-popping, throaty shouting a la Dean last Monday night (although if he loses the Democratic nomination the WWF may have a spot for him). But it does need a real opposition party, presenting un-watered-down alternatives in policy that are clear to the American people, so that they have choice and an interest in exercising it — can check, balance, react to and interact with their government — and democracy can keep on.

The speech, more than anything, brought to the surface an undercurrent in political discourse that is unsettling. From Bush’s words, spoken and not, it’s clear that the president and his cache of advisers have not acted in the best interest of America. And with the prolonged absence of committed public attentiveness, reaching its apex last Tuesday, neither have Americans.

For all I know, the American political consciousness may be alive and well, but the outward signs of it are still weak. It’s time for change. And electing a new president is a rose by any other name. The 2004 elections may produce another face to blame, but without fundamental individual reform, it will yield the same headaches and headlines.

Our leaders are groping blindly in the darkness, partially because they’ve dimmed the lights, but also because they have only the faintest voice to follow.