An interesting take on the traditional State of the Union message delivered each January by the president to Congress and a national television audience came from Peter Robinson, a speechwriter for former President Ronald Reagan, in an OpEd piece in Thursday’s newspaper.
The article, written by two scholars with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, dealt with behind-the-scene preparations for the annual snoozer.
Robinson, for whom the speech remains “one of the central mysteries of modern American life,” told his interviewer, “The president doesn’t want to give it, Congress doesn’t want to listen to it, and the networks don’t want to cover it, and every year the damn thing happens all the same.”
Not that we seem to mind all that much. In pretty good numbers, we can be counted on to watch the ritual, the die-hards among us sticking with it until the merciful end — even though the speech may sometimes last nearly as long as a Fidel Castro harangue on a slow day in Havana.
I watched President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address Wednesday night — all one hour and nine minutes of it — even though it meant there could be no escaping also watching the distracting cheerleading routine of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who shared the camera with Obama from her seat behind him on the speaker’s platform.
By most anyone’s standards this was cruel and unusual punishment. But I mitigated the effect somewhat by keeping a tally of how many times the woman jumped out of her chair to applaud a presidential line. My records show this number to be 44, although I could have missed a couple of leaps, I suppose, when I dozed momentarily as the Obama speech crept beyond the first hour.
Obama’s address got high approval ratings in several national polls. It was also greeted enthusiastically by majority Democrats seated in the chamber of the House of Representatives. By skeptical Republicans, though, not so much.
“Democrats jumped to their feet and roared when Obama said he wanted to impose a new fee on banks, while Republicans sat stone-faced,” an Associated Press news story reported on the morning after. “Democrats stood and applauded when Obama mentioned the economic stimulus package passed last February. Republicans sat and stared.”
Solemn members of the Supreme Court, seated in their black robes in front of Obama, did their share of stone-faced staring, as well, when Obama “with all due respect to the separation of powers” said the court’s recent decision allowing corporations greater flexibility in supporting or opposing candidates in future elections does not bode well for the republic. He proposed that Congress require lobbyists to disclose all contact with lawmakers as a way to blunt the court’s decision.
It was a weird and somewhat awkward moment, this calling out of the high court representing the judiciary branch of government — co-equal with the executive and legislative branches — in front of a national audience. It didn’t help that the jumpers in the mob chose the occasion to go into their spring-forth-and-applaud mode, even though legal scholars claimed later that the president’s presumptions concerning the court’s ruling were faulty. Surrounded by apparently hostile forces, the justices, who traditionally attend the event out of respect for the presidency and the Congress, must have wondered why they had bothered to show up.
My notes regarding the speech show that television pundits who have been critical of the administration took a hit. Obama blamed himself for not satisfactorily explaining health care reform — despite having made multiple speeches on the subject. A proposed new stimulus bill will be called a jobs bill because “stimulus” is now considered to be a toxic word. And the statute of limitations on blaming former President George W. Bush for bequeathing a huge deficit to the Obama administration has evidently not yet expired.
All of that will soon be forgotten. The image of the justices as stoic captive audience unable to respond save for Justice Samuel Alito visibly mouthing his objection is, however, one likely to endure in the national consciousness. But not as a highlight.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.