Jewish World Review Jan. 25, 2011 20 Shevat, 5771
Unmemorable State of the Union Speeches
By Roger Simon
It is a shame how little SOTUs — as they are called in press parlance — are remembered considering how long they are worked upon, how carefully they are crafted and how the president usually drives his staff nuts for months in the creation of each one.
But ask yourself if you can remember a single memorable line from a State of the Union address.
How about, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"? Naw, that was Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural address on March 4, 1933.
So how about, "Ask not ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country"? Nope, John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, Jan. 20, 1961.
Then there was Ronald Reagan's: "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." Nope, not a SOTU. That was a sound check for National Public Radio.
So what memorable lines from SOTUs are there? Well, we have Bill Clinton's, "The era of big government is over," from Jan. 23, 1996. (Less remembered is the important line that came next, "But we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.")
Then we have George W. Bush's "axis of evil" from his SOTU on Jan. 29, 2002, to describe North Korea, Iran and Iraq. ("Is our children learning?" was from a speech in Florence, S.C., on Jan. 11, 2000, so that doesn't count.)
And if you are a real student of history or very, very old, you may remember that James Monroe announced during his seventh SOTU on Dec. 2, 1823, his famous Monroe Doctrine, forbidding European countries to further colonize South America. It didn't make a big splash at the time, perhaps because it came at the end of a pretty long speech (more than 6,300 words).
SOTUs tend to ramble on a bit because they are constantly interrupted — often with no good reason — by applause and because while inaugurations are usually held outside in frigid weather, SOTUs are usually delivered in the toasty confines of the House of Representatives (which is the venue for the speech because it has more chairs than the Senate), and so presidents can afford to dawdle.
President Obama's first official SOTU, on Jan. 27, 2010 — he had delivered an "Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress" on Feb. 24, 2009, which is a SOTU in everything but name — went on for 71 minutes, among the longest in the last 45 years.
His second could go on just as long, especially if the president addresses two issues — gun control and mental health care — that he raised in his memorial speech in Tucson on Jan. 12. It could also make his SOTU memorable.
The Constitution requires only that the president "from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."
George Washington delivered his SOTUs in person, but Thomas Jefferson (who, historians tell us, was not a very good orator) sent his to Congress in writing for a clerk to read aloud. That practice lasted until 1913, when Woodrow Wilson delivered his address in person. Ever since, presidents have used both options, though with the age of mass media, most prefer to get the free TV time.
The speeches do not, Gallup tells us, swing many votes. A "review of Gallup historical data suggests these speeches rarely affect a president's public standing in a meaningful way, despite the amount of attention they receive," Gallup has reported.
Most of the people who tune in to SOTUs tend to already favor the president they are watching. Though when Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouted out, "You lie!" at Obama at a near-SOTU on Sept. 9, 2009 (it was a Joint Session of Congress for Obama to outline his health care reforms), that probably was counted as a negative opinion.
While often not remembered, each word of a SOTU is subjected to fact-checking and numerical analysis. The guardian.co.uk analyzed the SOTUs of Obama, Bush, Reagan, Kennedy, Roosevelt, Lincoln and Washington to see which word those presidents used most often.
It was — big surprise — "I."
So how do these speeches get written?
"Obviously, you want to write a speech in a way that is interesting enough that people want to listen, and that leaves them feeling a sense of momentum and progress," senior Obama adviser David Axelrod told The Associated Press last year. "But these are serious times. I don't think this is a time for rhetorical flights of fancy."
But telling Barack Obama he can't indulge in "rhetorical flights of fancy" is like telling a ballerina she can't dance on her toes, so I would expect at least a few flights this year.
Obama's first official SOTU was scheduled for Feb. 2, 2010, the same night that ABC's "Lost" was going to air its final show of the season. Either ABC or Obama would blink first.
The White House changed the speech to Jan. 27.
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