Despite being a political junkie and a former professor of American politics, I will not be watching the president’s annual State of the Union address on Tuesday. I must confess that in my three decades on this planet I have watched maybe two SOTU speeches in their entirety. Had I lived between 1801 and 1913, that number would be zero.
That’s because once upon a time Thomas Jefferson would simply send handwritten SOTUs to Congress, which was the standard practice until Woodrow Wilson took office in 1913 and became the first president since John Adams to deliver an oral SOTU.
George Washington, who also delivered oral SOTUs to Congress, kept them so brief that his eight speeches fit neatly onto fewer than 50 pages. Now, a single SOTU can go on for 50 minutes. Or more.
More than 100 years after Wilson’s first SOTU, the speech has become the biggest annual spectacle in American politics. Delivered because the Constitution requires it, the SOTU is now performed as the quintessential political pseudo-event, where the president regales the citizenry with a lengthy and mostly unachievable to-do list while members of his party gush with standing ovations, the opposing party scowls, and the Supreme Court falls asleep and shakes their heads.
Yet, for all the p0mp and circumstance surrounding this event, a typical SOTU speech is as memorable as a booze-fueled tryst, though far less enjoyable. Arguably, the most noteworthy SOTU in my lifetime was George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech in 2002, and that’s because insinuating that Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were the new Axis Powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy was monumentally stupid, and it signaled the beginning of the worst foreign policy disaster in 40 years.
Then there are the SOTU responses from the opposition, which even fewer people remember, unless of course the person delivering it is suddenly overcome with thirst or doesn’t know where the camera is.
As a means of persuasion in the United States, rhetoric is dead, and I’m not really sure if it was ever alive. One can imagine Democratic-Republicans silently seething through John Adams’ deliveries to Congress as they thought about how unimpressed they were by the words of “His Rotundity.” While a presidential speech might be able to change a few citizens’ minds, Congress is not so easily moved.
Tonight, when Obama delivers his speech that the pundits will peruse, parse, praise, and pan, I won’t be tuning in. Political theater was never my thing. However, I’ll be more than happy to spread any memes generated by sudden movements from the vice president in the background.