Everyone’s a Critic

It’s Not the President’s Speech That Makes News but the Reactions to It

State of the union speeches are so packaged and slick that there’s no room for excitement. Reactions to the speech—now there’s where you’ll find drama.

01.29.14 6:45 AM ET

I know it makes me a bad political journalist, but I have never liked the State of the Union address. Yeah. I know all the arguments for why we should love this overhyped annual media orgy: POTUS gets to strut his oratorical stuff, signal his priorities, run through his policy wish list, tweak the opposition, see how many times he can make his congressional team pop up for a standing ovation … And, sure enough, this year’s offering had a handful of nice moments: POTUS’s shout out to Boehner’s “barkeep” dad, his dig about Americans not wanting another 40 House votes to repeal Obamacare, Joe Biden’s constant face-making, and, of course, the closing tribute to wounded Army Ranger Cory Remsburg. That said, at this point, the entire ritual is so packaged, so slick, so predictable, so perfect that it has all the soul of a Snuggie infomercial.

The SOTU responses, on the other hand. Now those are good drama. They have energy, spontaneity, emotion, and the ever-present frisson of suspense as we wait to see if one or more responders are going to pull a “Jindal” and tank their political careers. On top of all that, increasingly, the responses tell us more about the state of our political union than the over-stage-managed main event could ever dare.

This year, for instance, the primary thing they told us is that there is no such thing as a coordinated Republican message. With no fewer than four smackdowns of Obama on the schedule, just trying to keep up with all of the opposition members’ video feeds was exhausting. At one point, I had a mild panic attack when I lost the link to Sen. Mike Lee giving the Tea Party response while trying to keep an eye on CNN and take notes on House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers’s official GOP response. (Before we go any further here, let’s give a shout out to a woman willing to stay up late and deliver the SOTU response a mere eight weeks after giving birth to her third child. Way to take one for the team, CMR!)

All the while I kept checking Twitter for the link to Sen. Rand Paul’s pre-taped response on behalf of, well, Sen. Rand Paul. In an effort to impose order on the whole mess, I eventually put Paul’s video on hold while I finished watching Rodgers and Lee. But this left me watching Paul’s video right after 11 p.m., by which point Paul himself was on CNN doing a live postmortem with Wolf Blitzer. Rolling with the chaos, I tried to watch both Pauls simultaneously. In a word: surreal.

Not speaking Spanish, I didn’t even try to add Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s speech to the mix, especially since hers was supposed to be basically a translation of Rodgers’s address, with the personal bits tweaked.

And make no mistake: Rodgers’s speech was heavy on personal bits. Up-by-her-bootstrap bits. Family bits. Heart-warming stories of growing up on her parents’ farm in Kettle Falls, Washington (complete with picking apples before dawn with her brother and showing her 4H animals at the county fair). Heart-tugging tales about her own six-year-old son, Cole, who was born with Down Syndrome. There was a lot of talk about God and prayer and plenty of schmaltz a la “the true state of the union lies in your heart and in your home.” But all the details added up to one big metamessage: Republicans love women—and even have some on their team. Nice women. Soothing women. Non-scary women. Not just crazy-eyed Michele Bachmann or perpetually aggrieved Sarah Palin types. Honest. They really do.

(I’m confident those who tuned in to watch Ros-Lehtinen were equally impressed by how much the GOP loves Hispanic women.)

Even the evening’s male speakers, however, were clearly aware of the need to put a friendly face on their messages, no matter how harsh. So even as Rand Paul explained how government is the root of all evil and floated his plan to save the poor (“Economic freedom zones,” where taxes will be slashed to 5 percent and regulations will be but an ugly memory), he did so with a serene demeanor.

Likewise, the eternally mild-mannered Mike Lee did his part to reassure Americans that Tea Partyers aren’t all a bunch of Ted Cruz ravers. (Although, this may have come as a disappointment to many of those turning in to watch the Tea Party Express-sponsored feed.) Lee’s speech centered on the need for reform movements to move past protesting the kind of government they don’t like and start working toward one that they do like. He went on at length about the horrors of cronyism and “government-driven inequality,” but the core idea was that change takes time, and it takes more than zany protests. (“The founders made a point at Boston Harbor, but they made history in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.”) It will be interesting to see how that admonition plays with the die-hards.

Impressively, no one totally flubbed—or even had a Marco Rubio waterboy moment. Rodgers was clearly nervous and kept swallowing hard, but she made it through without incident. Lee looked like he was being filmed by someone’s grandparents at a 4th grade piano recital, and whoever was working the camera left the poor senator hanging there for what seemed like an eternity after he had finished speaking. But terrible production values are pretty much par for the course with such responses. Of everyone, Paul’s video looked the sharpest, which is kind of ironic when you consider that he was the one responder out there operating on a totally freelance basis.

Of course, Paul is unlikely to enjoy such a distinction ever again. With each passing year, the response field grows as social media makes it ever easier for pols to offer up their 10 cents. By next SOTU, I expect the members of Congress to be taking selfie reaction shots in real time. Just thinking about it is enough to send me scrambling for the Xanax.