The State of the Union: Showbiz at the Capitol
In case there was any doubt, Tuesday night’s State of the Union address showed that the annual ritual is now an entertainment spectacle, a top-notch television production complete with a rock star performer, cheering throngs, and even the exploitation of overeager fans.
Once a serious event where presidents addressed their counterparts in Congress, the state of the union is now a campaign event with all the trappings of political razzle-dazzle. It’s the political equivalent of the Academy Awards, the Grammys, and the Emmys all wrapped into one. But there’s one glaring difference. There is only one winner. President Obama stands at the House rostrum as the self-appointed American Idol.
The President’s address was predictable and disappointing. It was really an extension of his Inaugural Address, a reiteration of the aggressive and even defiant agenda for his second term. The President himself must have been bored with the exercise.
He labored through the usual litany of liberal objectives, filling in the blanks with up to date goals. Big government was the theme throughout. This was not news. To spice up the rhetoric, Obama made pleas for urgent action to advance gun control, enact immigration reform, and even that old standby, the ever- present need to combat global warming, now officially known as climate change.
Absent from the President’s remarks was any frank discussion of the perilous condition of the nation’s economy. He’s always calling for job creation and higher taxes framed as investments in education, research and development, and infrastructure. But he only nods at the need for meaningful compromise to head off the drastic cuts in the looming sequester or the vexing issues of debt reduction, tax reform, or a meaningful confrontation with runaway entitlements.
It’s standard procedure that the President’s extended remarks are followed by very abbreviated rebuttals from the loyal opposition. This time we got two – – Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. They both made credible cases for policy alternatives, but they were bit players in hopeless competition with the lavish production in the House chamber.
Then there’s the most shameless aspect of the State of the Union evening, the exploitation of citizens who are herded into the First Lady’s box in the House gallery. These are the extras in the production. They are given prominent seating to provide flesh and blood examples of the President’s agenda.
Ronald Reagan started this tradition thirty years ago when he elevated an anonymous citizen – – Lenny Stutnik – – to the status of national celebrity for his heroic act of jumping into the icy waters of the Potomac River to save a survivor of a plane crash. Little did Reagan know that his dramatic and even touching tribute to a selfless citizen would one day become an out-of-control political contrivance.
No less than 26 citizens were invited to sit with the First Lady. They were billed as Americans from middle-class families whose day-to-day lives would benefit from the policy proposals the president planned to unveil in his speech.
Those Americans touched every base dear to the heart of the President and his causes. In addition to gun control and immigration, they represented education, gay-rights, physical fitness, wind energy, and the benefits of Obamacare. Representatives of the military and small business were included as window dressing.
Exploitation is a staple of entertainment. Sometimes it’s gratuitous violence and sometimes it’s sappy melodrama. But it always manipulates the audience.
Maybe it’s time to reconsider the need for the annual State of the Union spectacle. Before the 20th century, with the exception of the first two presidents – – Washington and Adams – – presidents sent a written message to the Congress to comply with the constitutional requirement for a state of the union assessment.
Woodrow Wilson started the tradition of in person delivery of the state of the union to Congress in 1913. Then it became a media event, first on radio with Calvin Coolidge in 1923 and then on television with Harry Truman in 1947. It was a daytime event until Lyndon Johnson moved the speech to the evening in 1965.
We would be well served to preserve an hour of prime time television and save the nation from a third rate political production. A good movie, a crime thriller, or even a game show would fit the bill.
During the course of his career, Walker has worked in Chicago, Washington DC, New York City, and Phoenix. He served as a reporter in Chicago, a press secretary and speechwriter in Washington, and in numerous positions in New York in corporate and financial services communications.
Walker is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.