Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Quote of the Day (Peggy Noonan, on Applause in State of the Union Speeches)

“[I]n the 1960s network anchors started noting how many times the president was ‘interrupted by applause’ [in the State of the Union address]. This made everyone in every White House since want to get their guy more applause than the previous guy. Congressmen pop up and down like manic gophers in an attempt to show support. A president is left standing up there for an hour and 20 minutes with the blood starting to pool in his calves and a look on his face that says, ‘I really want to look like I’m interested in what I’m saying, but we’re 22 minutes in and I’m just thinking about dinner.’ They eat lightly before the speech. They are hungry after.”— Peggy Noonan, “Declarations: How to Continue the Obama Upswing,” The Wall Street Journal, January 21, 2011

Those who can recall this weekend’s column by Peggy Noonan, in which she expressed the notion that Americans have stopped listening to President Obama, will likely think that the above article title is a misprint. But note the date: 2011. She turned out, at least in this instance, to display some shrewdness about the turn in his fortunes that would bring about his reelection.

But I’m not recalling that earlier column to show what a difference three years can make (her columns about Obama have become increasingly predictable: she's--surprise, surprise!--against him), but rather to highlight that she has caught onto something that people of all political stripes can recognize as true: the often-empty showmanship of State of the Union addresses. As policy pronouncements, they have become statements by committee, with everything of interest written by some poor scribe bleached of all vigor by some Cabinet undersecretary. Most of the time, it’s what Clinton speechwriter (and my college classmate) Michael Waldman accurately termed, in a fascinating interview on PBS in 2000, “very pre-scripted, stately symphonies.” 

Even when the President picks an individual out of the audience (a tradition begun by Noonan’s beloved old boss, Ronald Reagan), it’s not enough to enliven an address of such interminable length. “Imagine,” writes former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau in a post on "The Daily Beast", “if a friend asked you to sit quietly for nearly an hour while he spoke with great detail and flourish about his many plans for the year ahead. Probably not, right?” (And this is a piece that still sees some benefit from these addresses!)

(The Waldman interview, by the way, reminded me of the first hint of partisan rudeness in the audience in these affairs. Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst at Obama in the 2009 address—“You lie!”—earned him a censure vote from the House of Representatives, along largely partisan lines. Yet 16 years before that, a Newt Gingrich-led GOP had erupted in laughter at Bill Clinton’s call for campaign-finance reform. I did not agree with much of Clinton’s subsequent behavior in the Oval Office, but his improvised retort on this occasion-- "You know they're not laughing at home"—was as well-merited as it was effective.)

The New Republic has just come out with a list of the best State of the Union addresses, according to a panel of historians. But what strikes me, however, is how paradoxical the results are. 

A couple of the historians cited Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 address, in which he declared the War on Poverty and put the full backing of his office behind his epochal civil-rights program. But, in watching some of it on C-Span this weekend, I found his delivery dull and earnest, and understood why Kennedy aides had once derided him behind his back as “Uncle Cornpone.” It displayed not one iota of the powerful one-on-one “Johnson treatment” he used to convert recalcitrant legislators to his way of thinking. (To understand the full nature of this—including private pictures of him boring in, for all he's worth, on the overmatched Senator Theodore Green—see this post on the site “Dead Presidents,” by blogger Anthony Bergen.)

On the other hand, an address that surely must rank on any short list of the most rhetorically powerful addresses ever given by a President was also one of the most misconceived in terms of its intention. I’m talking about Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 State of the Union address, one whose closing still thrills me—and, I suspect, many students of the Presidency—to read:

“Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.”

But what was this measure the President called “plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless”? A constitutional amendment authorizing voluntary colonization of blacks back to Africa and compensated emancipation for their slave masters. The proposal was uncharacteristically naïve of the normally politically surefooted Lincoln: Slaves and freedmen would not want to be wrenched from a land in which, for all its faults, they had put down roots, and even slaveholders in states that had stayed in the Union were proving resistant to any notion of manumitting their enormously lucrative properties. (You can read my analysis of the reasons for Lincoln’s bold move—and why it failed—in this prior post.)

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