A friend once advised me that if one is to make it to the conclusion of a typical snoozer of a presidential State of the Union address it helps to have some sort of diversion in play. And so it was that I decided to remain awake by counting the number of times the in-house audience applauded President Barack Obama’s speech on Tuesday evening.
By the time the 63-minute nationally televised performance was history, I had made 85 marks on my scorecard. The 17 groupings of five marks each — four vertical strokes tied together with a right-hand slash mark — looked much like the count that some comic-strip convict in a federal penitentiary might scratch on the wall of his cell to record precious time served.
By my reckoning, 85 interruptions in 63 minutes amounts to one annoying break in the action roughly every 44 seconds on average, which would seem sufficient to drive a large segment of the viewing audience nuts.
As is the case with most State of the Union speeches by presidents of whatever political persuasion to groups of mixed political loyalties, some of the applause seemed genuine. But more of it seemed perfunctory, which is to say done as a matter of duty or custom, without thought or genuine feeling.
Still, if television camera operators are on their game in these oratorical extravaganzas and pan to the right faces in the audience at the right time, the viewer who hangs in there stands to be well entertained.
Early on in Tuesday’s event, for example, New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, never unsure of what to do when spotting a television camera trained on him, jumped up in a clapping frenzy to audition for the unofficial role of applauder-in-chief. Later, as those seated near Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, stood to cheer an Obama promise concerning the nation’s difficult immigration problem, McCain — Obama’s opponent in the 2008 presidential election — flashed the knowing half-smile of the skeptic harboring a difference of opinion and remained anchored to his seat. The picture, translated, was easily worth its allotted thousand words.
A poker-faced Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, Speaker of the House of Representatives and a leader of the loyal opposition, seated behind the president’s left shoulder as moderator of the event, remained a glum stoic throughout the evening. His emotionless display was in stark contrast to the memorable pop-up cheerleading routine of the former Speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-California, when she had occupied Boehner’s chair for an earlier presidential State of the Union address.
The camera zoomed in on a Republican Gloomy Gus, sitting on his hands while others around him erupted in ecstasy at a presidential suggestion as to the fate he sees awaiting those who have had the audacity to make their fortunes while in pursuit of the American dream. Nearby, a Democratic lawmaker on full camera alert reflexively nodded in approval of a presidential point, as though on cue from some off-camera prompter. And on it went.
Closer to home, Republican Gov. Paul LePage chose the same evening to give his first State of the State address at Augusta, producing a somewhat rare daily-double treat of sorts for political junkies.
The president said he believes the American dream is under siege, making the restoration of a fair shot for every citizen “the defining issue of our time.” The governor, on his best oratorical behavior in addressing his audience, summed up the achievements of his first year in office and warned that for the state to succeed “we must put politics and gridlock aside.”
Watching these annual state of the state and union summations seems akin to taking a dose of cod liver oil without the peanut butter chaser: You may consider the medicine pretty much worthless, but you have a vague feeling that it must be good for you or it wouldn’t be so hard to swallow.
There are those who advocate returning to the old ways, when presidents did not deliver their annual new year’s message via the bully pulpit before a joint session of Congress, but simply mailed it in. Bad idea, I say.
To be deprived of the spectacle of watching a president slog his way through the traditional bafflegarb concerning taxes, the lousy economy and the like for an hour or more is one thing. To miss out on the comical sideshow to the main event would be quite another.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.