Sunday, January 25, 2015

Empty Rhetoric From On High

Despite all the time and effort the media invest in covering the State of the Union address each year, it remains remarkably bad theater, a production whose importance is dwindling along with its audience.

The script:

The President assures his fellow Americans that the State of the Union has never been better while reciting a list of accomplishments that he embraces as his own, which in more than a few cases is an exaggeration.

The President will then lay out his vision for the future, including many initiatives that will go nowhere because his party doesn’t control either the House or the Senate.

He will then attempt to convince us that America’s greatness is the direct result of his party’s stewardship. He will view with alarm, point with pride, call to action.

Rinse and repeat every year.

While this is going on, an army of reporters are tweeting what is being said as fast as their thumbs can dance across their Blackberry keyboards. (“President declares America good, our enemies bad.”)

Members of the opposition fall all over themselves to give a response. While there is one official response, everybody can now get into the act thanks to You Tube.

Within 24 hours, contrarian opinions outnumber cat pictures on the Internet.

In the meantime, dozens of analysts, like archaeologists exploring a mysterious ancient tomb, try to make sense of it all.

The highlight, for me at least, is watching to see how the lack of civility that defines Washington politics is going to rear its ugly head.

A few years back, Democrats lustily booed President Bush when he when he called for renewal of the Patriot Act. The next year they shouted "No!" when Bush pushed for Social Security reform.

Then there was the time that Republican Joe Wilson in the midst of the speech shouted “you lie” at President Obama, thereby cementing his place in the Blockhead Hall of Fame.

And this year, when Republicans derisively cheered after Obama commented that he had no more campaigns to run, he ad-libbed, “I know, because I won both of them.” To raucous laughter and applause. For a moment, I thought I was watching open mike night at a comedy club.

TV viewership for President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night fell to a 15-year low, according to numbers from Nielsen. 

The combined figure is down about 5% from last year's State of the Union address, which drew about 33.3 million viewers. It was the lowest since President Clinton's final State of the Union in 2000. That speech pulled in just under 31.5 million viewers.

To be sure, there have been memorable moments from the State of the Union Speech. Historians agree on these as worthy of recognition:

--- The address had been a written document submitted to Congress, rather than a delivered speech. This changed with President Woodrow Wilson, who chose to deliver his message personally to Congress in 1913.

--- Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 evoked “the Four Freedoms”—freedom of speech and worship and freedom from want and fear—as a powerful justification for what was to be America’s role in a world at war.

--- Republican President Gerald Ford in 1975, his first address since ascending to the presidency in the August of 1974 after Richard Nixon's resignation, pulled no punches when he declared, “I must say to you that the state of the Union is not good.” 

--- Lyndon Johnson promised in his 1964 address that the coming Congress would be remembered as the one that “declared all-out war on human poverty.”

--- James Monroe’s State of the Union address in 1823 outlined a policy which stated that the United States would not meddle in the affairs of European governments and, most importantly, declared that any further efforts by European powers to colonize countries in the Western Hemisphere would be considered an act of aggression requiring U.S. intervention. It became known at the Monroe Doctrine.

--- In 1862, Abraham Lincoln used his message to Congress to tie the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery. "Without slavery the rebellion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue.”

Alas, the moments when the lofty rhetoric translates into something meaningful are rare.

So what to do? Should we shut off the cameras, send the pundits packing and let the proceedings take place in some obscure committee room?

No. Despite the politics and posturing, the people’s business should be conducted in public. The most serious threat to democracy comes from those who would govern in secret and speak only among themselves.

So how do we make the State of the Union address relevant again?

Why not a modified debate format? The President and the leader of the loyal opposition are given 15 minutes for an opening statement, then are questioned by members of the media and the public.

At the end of the day, we would ultimately know a lot more about the state of the union than we learn from an oratorical press release conceived and delivered by and for the party in power.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.

No comments: