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PRUDEN: A night to cheer, and to stay awake
Tonight’s one of the nights groupies live for, the blatherfest called the State of the Union speech. Presidents usually exhaust their supply of cliches until the spring thaw.
This year’s cliche of choice is “civility,” and it’s a tired old chestnut already. Civility should be a noun we rarely use, because the word is only a synonym for the good manners that went out of style decades ago. Presidents campaign on sentiment now, but sentiment is eventually overtaken by reality. “We campaign in poetry,” Mario Cuomo famously said, “but we govern in prose.”
Mr. Obama, who does sentiment well, will no doubt be unable to resist the temptation to dip into sentiment in his take on the State of the Union. He has to be careful. Invocations of tragedy, however well meant, easily become exploitation of someone else’s suffering. Even he won’t be believable scolding others for poisoning the stew with harsh words, since he has used a few himself (“if they [the Republicans] bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun”). He may be tempted to throw a little tapioca to the majority of folk the pollsters say are appalled by the over-the-top craziness abroad in the land, but such polling leads to uneasy conclusions. Many Americans are appalled by the right, but probably more are appalled by the left, as we saw in the aftermath of Tucson. The pundits who tried to blame Sarah Palin and her friends for all the grief in the land woke up on the third day with undigested egg on their faces.
The only way the president can employ the jujitsu to turn Republican grass-roots anger over earmarks, runaway spending and brazen congressional corruption against his newly empowered tormentors in Congress, says Michael Waldman, President Clinton’s chief speechwriter, is “to leapfrog the Republicans in Congress by proposing strong, really bold reforms and make [the Republicans] try to catch up.” But “strong, really bold reforms” will be recognized as an adventure in euphemism, and the lessons taught last November is that the peasants have caught on to the arts of euphemism. Devising a way to pit what Mr. Waldman calls the public’s deficit anxiety against the “tax-cut hunger of the Republican elites” is such an exercise in euphemism, only a badly disguised appeal for more taxes.
The atmospherics of this State of the Union are dramatically different from recent years past. The president will still have Joe Biden, as the president of the Senate, at his side, laughing at his witty asides and grinning on cue when the president needs a little evidence of faux bonhomie. But instead of Nancy Pelosi leaping to her feet like a Jill-in-the-box to applaud the president’s every cough and pause, he’ll have the dour John A. Boehner wiping away tears, probably of pique.
Mr. Obama has been so chastened by the November massacre that he might have kind words for a few Republicans, at least the ones safely dead, and reprise Republican themes of the past. In an Op-Ed in USA Today, Mr. Obama paid tribute to Ronald Reagan, not as a curiosity, but as a man whose values might be useful to a modern Democratic president eager to climb out of a hole wrought by his own shovel. “[Mr. Reagan] had faith in the American promise; in the importance of reaffirming values like hard work and personal responsibility; and in his own unique ability to inspire others to greatness.”
Everyone wants to write Mr. Obama’s speech. Old White House speechwriters lapse into dreaded columny. Peggy Noonan, who wrote great stuff for George Bush the Elder, thinks Mr. Obama can knock it out of the park (or at least hit a Texas Leaguer into short center field) if he rises above himself to say things “simply, clearly and sparingly,” as the elder Mr. Bush did on occasion (“… read my lips …”). But Mr. Obama, like most presidents on this occasion, is likely to talk too much. “He says too many words, and they’re not especially interesting words,” say Ms. Noonan, writing in the Wall Street Journal. “They’re dull and bureaucratic or windy and vague, too round and soft to pierce and enter your brain.”
But they’re likely to be “civil,” in keeping with the season’s cliche. Republicans and Democrats have been assigned to sit next to each other to avoid “incidents” of fun and spontaneity. Nobody will heckle as earlier State of the Union audiences heckled FDR and Harry Truman. Keep it dull, that’s the recipe.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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