By Jeff Greenfield
So, you’ve ordered in the pizza, chicken wings and beer, invited a pack of your buddies over, and you’re all set to watch Tuesday’s must-see TV.
Well, maybe that’s what you’re doing if you run with the kind of crowd that watches C-SPAN 3 for erotic diversion. But the numbers say you’re in a distinct minority.
Last year, some 38 million people viewed the State of the Union address, compared with the more than 108 million who watched last month’s Super Bowl—and that was only on one network. (If the millions who click their remotes tonight in a desperate search for their network fare want a target for their fury, they can blame Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson—Wilson for reviving the in-person speech in 1913 after more than a century of written messages; LBJ for switching the speech from daytime to prime time in 1965.)
If you’re in a civic-indeed mood and plan to watch tonight, is there any way to turn the speech into a more-or-less enjoyable experience? Here, a few helpful hints:
1. Count the standing ovations: When the president enters the chamber, pretty much everyone, Republican and Democrat alike, stands and applauds (keep a sharp eye on Michele Bachmann for a possible outlier). They keep standing as he slowly makes his way to the rostrum then everyone sits down. Next, the speaker of the house will intone: “I have the high honor and distinct privilege of introducing the president of the United States.” Then everyone stands up again and applauds for several minutes. (This is a perfect symbol of the efficiency with which the U.S. Congress operates.)
Throughout the next hour, some, most or all of the members of Congress will be leaping to their feet at different times to cheer Obama’s remarks. Sometimes all will stand and applaud, as when the president salutes America’s fighting men and women, or, as seems likely, he pays tribute to the departing Pope Benedict. Sometimes it will be a sharply divided House chamber, as when Obama endorses new gun laws or bashes corporate malfeasance, or calls for “ investment.” Sometimes the cheers from the Republican side will be derisive, as they will be if Obama warns against the high long-term debt. But they’ll all count and, whether you organize a betting pool or a drinking game, keeping track of the applause lines will add zest to your viewing.
2. Find a memorable phrase: Unlike inaugurals, State of the Union speeches are written in prose, not poetry. Presidents and their speechwriters may try to craft a line for the ages, but the demands for a litany of policy proposals make that goal a challenge. FDR succeeded in 1941 when he spoke of “the Four Freedoms” (freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom from fear). LBJ announced a “War on Poverty” in 1964. And George W. Bush branded Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the “Axis of Evil” in 2002.
The Clinton White House toyed with wrapping its vision of government around the phrase “the New Foundation”—until someone realized it sounded like a tag line for Spanx. He struck a more memorable note, if one unnerving to the liberal wing of his party, when he declared in 1996 that “the era of big government is over.” (Republicans fear that Obama may announce tonight that “the era of big government is over ... due.”)
(For those of you playing this game, “a memorable policy” in a State of the Union message does not necessarily count. When President James Monroe warned European powers in 1823 not to look for colonies in the Western Hemisphere, he lacked the arrogance to say: “In honor of myself, I am calling this policy the Monroe Doctrine.”)
3. Look for unscripted moments of drama: I suspect Republicans will be on good behavior tonight, so don’t anticipate a replay of Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” outburst during Obama’s September 2009 health care speech. But the cameras are constantly looking for reaction shots throughout the speech—they caught Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito shaking his head and muttering, “Not true,” when the president blasted the court’s campaign-finance ruling in the Citizens’ United case in his 2010 State of the Union speech. (It’s also worth seeing how many justices stay away from tonight’s address; Chief Justice John Roberts has expressed skepticism about being part of this political theater.)
Whatever the theater tonight, nothing can match the sheer, stark horror of what we saw when President Johnson gave his speech in 1964, two months after JFK’s assassination. Without a vice president, the chairs directly behind the president—who had survived a near-fatal heart attack eight years earlier—were occupied by Speaker of the House John McCormack, a desiccated 72-year-old, and President pro tempore Carl Hayden, 86 years old and looking a few decades older. I’ve always thought that the video alone helped rush through passage of the 25th Amendment, which permits a president to fill a vacancy in that office.