Let’s talk about clapping and call it news: the SOTU

Joseph Lamberson

Joseph Lamberson

By Brian Pierce

A few days ago I was assigned to write about the State of the Union. I was awfully excited. Sports fans have the Super Bowl, cinephiles have the Academy Awards and political geeks like me have the State of the Union. I invited all my friends over to my apartment, ordered some pizza and we all gathered around the TV to take in a live address from the leader of the free world.

It was to be a night of bold policy proposals and grand rhetoric, all filled with the ambition and seriousness of purpose that defines the greatest nation on Earth.

But all the buildup ended with an inevitable letdown. It felt like this was an especially disappointing State of the Union. I don’t just mean that I didn’t like the President’s policy proposals. What bothered me was the gradual realization that comparing this speech to the Super Bowl and the Oscars isn’t just an apt analogy in terms of the collective anticipation of an event but also in terms of its bizarrely high value in the American landscape, despite these events being utterly meaningless.

The President’s march down the aisle has all the trappings of red carpet vanity; his oratorical flourish captures all the hollow excess of a Super Bowl halftime show; the handshaking and elbow-rubbing in the Capitol rotunda left me with a disturbing sense of exclusivity, power, wealth and fame that defines Hollywood and the NFL just as well as Washington, D.C. It was pomp and circumstance, it was sound and fury, all signifying nothing.

And in the end, any sense that this was more important because it was men and women of real power discussing issues affecting real people vanished as soon as I took in the media reactions to it: “Aw, that’s nice how the President was so gracious to Speaker Pelosi!”, “Gosh, look how Obama got a better seat than Hillary did!”, “Isn’t it funny how sometimes half the chamber stands and

applauds and half sits?”, “Isn’t it funny how many times the President is interrupted for applause?”, “Isn’t it funny the way Laura Bush applauds?”, “Isn’t applause just too funny?”, “Isn’t Dikembe Mutombo so much taller than everybody else around him, and isn’t that absolutely sidesplitting?”

Perhaps I am getting too cynical, but it all left me feeling bamboozled, like the rights and livelihoods of the American people were being snuck out the back door of the Capitol building while we were being distracted by all the funny and famous faces.

The Democratic response made me feel slightly better. A strong-looking man speaking calmly and firmly in a quiet room, seeming to have an acute understanding of the gravity and realness of the issues he discussed. He even managed to strike a prophetic, even religious-sounding tone in the end when he declared “We will show him the way.” It came off as comforting and masculine. Still, its appeal was all a veneer providing a reassuring contrast to the grandiosity of the President’s speech, but little else.

The most troubling thing about the media reaction to the whole spectacle is that the talking heads all possess the unspoken knowledge that none of it really matters.

They resign themselves to talking only slightly about the few substantive policy proposals the President actually made, knowing full well hardly any of it will ever happen, then devoting the remainder of their time to asking depressing questions like whether various parts of the President’s speech were “effective.”

The media loves talking about how “effective” political speeches are as though they’ve given up on evaluating their honesty or wisdom and can only hope to assess whether their audience was successfully duped.

Next year, media outlets should refuse to cover the State of the Union and simply publish the text on their Web sites. Perhaps then the President will be forced to say something worth reporting.