In a sense, the president’s State of the Union address — SOTU, in our acronym-besotted age — is a throwback to an earlier era in American politics when politicians were expected to make big speeches.
But, for good or ill, our attention spans are shorter, our boredom threshold is lower and we would not sit still for, say, William Jennings Bryan’s famed and overwrought “Cross of Gold” speech, whose 110th anniversary we celebrate this year.
Instead, our presidential candidates have “conversations,” a misnomer because it implies that you, the voter, get to talk. You don’t. The conversation is one-sided. Or they go on “listening tours.” Guess who does the talking and who does the listening. Or they hold “town meetings.” Just try to bring up a resolution calling for twice-a-week trash pickup.
The State of the Union address is still a Big Speech, and Tuesday night’s was bigger than usual. For the first time in Bush’s presidency, he was facing Democratic control of both houses of Congress, and for the first time in U.S. history, the House speaker was a woman, Nancy Pelosi. The commentators felt compelled to comment on what she wore — not a problem under the previous management.
The White House prepared carefully for the speech, rewritten numerous times and rehearsed at Camp David, and worked diligently to sell it. In fact, there was a moment of spin gridlock in the White House driveway when the neocons, led by Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, were arriving for a briefing with Bush chief of staff Josh Bolten just as the network anchors — Couric, Schieffer, Blitzer, et al. — were departing their briefing. They met in the midst of a scrum of regular White House reporters waiting for their briefing.
The Democrats, too, were getting their act together, taking a mutual vow of good behavior. They were told that there was to be no crowing about or unseemly conduct over the outcome of the election. An unwritten code of conduct governs the audience. For example, there are three kinds of standing ovation: genuine, like the reception given Wesley Aubrey, the New York subway hero; pro forma, for some tired piece of party dogma like the balanced budget; and derisive. Bush was interrupted about 60 times in 49 minutes.
The speech always comes at the start of the congressional session, and it has the feel of the first weekend back at college after Christmas vacation. The VIP seats in the chamber are reserved, but for the rank-and-file lawmakers it’s first come, first serve. And the first traditionally is Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who staked out an aisle seat at 8 a.m. for the 9 p.m. speech. It ensured that she would be able to greet the president as he arrived and that she would be on television. That was her in the red dress.
Freshman Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., used her fortuitous location on the aisle to grab Bush as he exited and wrestle him into a steamy embrace. Well, they do say power is an aphrodisiac.
The chamber audience for the State of the Union has the distinction of being the only such gathering whose average age drops as the evening wears on. As the speech nears the 10 p.m. mark, the lawmakers — and this year, especially, the 10 or so running for president thus far — start slipping out of the chamber to do TV interviews. The shiny leather seats are glaringly obvious on TV when they’re empty, so as a seat becomes vacant a younger staffer is quickly slipped into it. The age of President Bill Clinton’s audience likely dropped an average of 20 years or more over the course of one of his addresses.
As for the actual state of the union? It’s “strong.” It almost always is.
(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com.)