Monday, January 24, 2011

Thank God for cable

 I don't find myself in agreement with George Will often, unless the bow-tied curmudgeon is writing about baseball.

Will has an ongoing, and I'd guess premature since  he's had it for 20 years or more, case of grumpy oldmanism.

Most Will columns can be summed up succinctly as "Hey, you kids get off my lawn!"

But on Sunday's "This Week" on ABC, he was on the money about the waste of time that the State of the Union Address has become.

I think Will is right that the State of the Union is almost never a great speech.

That's true even for presidents, like Obama, Clinton and Reagan who can give a speech. When the president is a poor speaker, like George W. Bush or Carter or Ford, the address is just interminable.

The reason that the State of the Union is usually a poor speech is that it's not so much a speech as a laundry list of things the president has done or wants to do. This applies equally to State of the Commonwealth addresses by Virginia's governors, which at least don't pre-empt any television shows anyone.

That's not as big a concern now as it was back in the old days, kiddies. Then we only had the three big broadcast networks and PBS, so you had to find a good book to read for two hours.

And, in Will's phrasing, the State of the Union is  a speech that "tries to stroke every erogenous zone in the electorate."

Though the imagery is creepy, Will is on target. The address is generally supposed to have something for everyone. Usually if you try to please everyone in politics,  you don't please anyone. Such is usually the case with the State of the Union.

Most of the phrases that we remember from recent presidents, "Ask not what you country can do for you, ask rather what you can do for your country," "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall," "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," "A day that will live in infamy," come not from State of the Union Addresses but from Inaugural Addresses and speeches given on other special occasions. President Obama's speech last week at the memorial for the Tuscon shooting victims will be remembered long after any of his State of the Union addresses are forgotten.

Woodrow Wilson, not one of Will's favorite presidents, initiated the custom of actually delivering the address to Congress. Before that, presidents sent a written report.

Reagan, probably Will's favorite president (there's some possibility it was Coolidge or perhaps Hoover) began the custom of pointing to invited guests in the gallery during the speech to illustrate the need for this or that program, or the bravery with which this or that policy is being carried out, turning it into presidential show and tell.

Wilson's practice  made the address much more like a king addressing Parliament than a CEO reporting on yearly progress to his board of directors.

It's probably no coincidence that since Wilson's time, the executive branch has swollen with self importance and usurped much that was once a function of Congress.

The address has also, regrettably, become a partisan event. The president's allies cheer lustily, while his opponents sit on their hands in stony silence.  Watch closely tomorrow and see if you can catch any Republicans updating their Facebook status during the speech. (Rep. Cantor, I'm talking to you.)
Hopefully, there won't be any heckling, as there was last year.

And, as Will points out, since it is a political event, generally a "Yay, Us!" rally for the president and his party, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the justices of the Supreme Court, who are supposed to be the apolitical arms of the government, really have no place there.

The State of the Union Address has become a really tedious, predictable, exercise.

The predicatable moment in this year's address will be that Obama will recognize the GOP victory this past November and offer to work with the new Republican majority in the House to solve the economic problems facing the country. He'll offer an olive branch, because he doesn't really have a choice.  Based on their actions so far, it's almost equally predictable the GOP won't respond enthusiastically. Their leadership has made it clear that they see making Obama a one-term president as their most important task.

He might as well just fax them his speech.

And then I could watch "NCIS: Los Angeles" in peace.

Cross posted to All Politics Is Local

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