I keep thinking that the State of the Union address as we know it isn’t long for this world. For years for me it has been starting to smell musty, feel hackneyed. Last year’s SOTU drew the worst ratings in 15 years.
Still, the audience was 31.7 million. That’s 500,000 more than watched that crazy Steelers-Bengals game Saturday night. If you’re outdrawing the NFL—and that’s on a bad year—you’re accomplishing something. So I guess, for the time being, it’s here to stay.
It doesn’t often live up to the hype. Personally, I’m not expecting a lot tonight, only because Barack Obama and the Republicans are in their last year of slogging trench warfare and there’s no convulsive scandal gripping the capital. But maybe we’ll be surprised. In the meantime, here are five times that the SOTU was dramatic:
• Abraham Lincoln, 1862. For starters, there was a war going on, and not in Europe or Indochina, but a few miles from the Capitol Building. That’s pretty big drama right there. But it was in this speech that Lincoln first directly tied the preservation of the Union to the end of slavery. Money quote: “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.”
Nielsen and cable weren’t around, but the address was delivered on Dec. 1, 1862, and the Emancipation Proclamation three weeks later. We can be sure there was much discussion of executive overreach.
• On Jan. 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. Ronald Reagan was set to give his State of the Union address that night, but it became the only SOTU ever delayed, by a week. If you weren’t around then, you can’t quite imagine the impact of that event on the America of the time. It wasn’t the first space-program tragedy that was caught on TV—that was the 1967 Apollo 1 mishap. But it was the first in which Americans saw the thing go ka-boom in real time. Reagan’s speech that night was arguably his most memorable, and a week later he opened the SOTU with a moving tribute to the dead astronauts. (Reagan is a comparative font of SOTU trivia—he was also the first president to start this annoying thing of inviting guests to the First Lady’s box, in 1982.)
• Worst: George W. Bush. The “axis of evil” speech was a SOTU, in 2002—the first SOTU since 9/11, when the state of the union was anything but strong (it was freaked out and thirsting for blood of some kind). It was already obvious to me and some other people that he and his people wanted to go to war in Iraq, but they were keeping that under wraps for the time being.
But he released the poison into the atmosphere here. Of North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, Bush said: “States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.” Maybe. With respect to Iran and North Korea, we’ll find out one way or the other someday. With respect to Iraq, the price of non-indifference is one we’re still paying, 14 years later.
• As might befit the most consequential president of the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt gave two that really mattered, at least to people on my side of the fence. In 1941, he enunciated the Four Freedoms (of speech, of worship, from want, from fear). The first two were unobjectionable, the third was and still is considered by those on the right to be Marxism American style, and the fourth was aimed at the right-wing isolationist crowd and was—and is—denounced as surrendering U.S. hegemony.
Then in 1944, Roosevelt proposed his “Second Bill of Rights.” This was the third freedom on steroids. We’re not there yet, but give us eight years of Hillary and we’ll see!
• Obviously, in terms of modern drama, Bill Clinton in 1998 is the cake-taker. It was five days after the Lewinsky scandal broke, and it was a time when TV journalists were saying things like...well, like Sam Donaldson (very prominent at the time) saying, “his presidency could be numbered in days.”
If you are young and don’t know much about all this, well, don’t worry, something tells me you will know plenty by this November. The short version is that special prosecutor Ken Starr had been after Clinton for years and had come up empty for years; finally, in mid-January, he got a tip that Clinton had had a relationship with a low-level White House aide (contrary to the normal journalistic shorthand, which is wrong—shocker, I know—Monica was not by then an intern). And within days, it was leaked (probably illegally) to the press—“it” being not just word of the affair, but the (false) suggestion that Clinton and his friend Vernon Jordan had suborned perjury by asking Lewinsky to lie under oath, which they had not done; but on the day of the SOTU, all of Washington believed he had.
And in that insane, hyperventilating atmosphere, he walks into the House chamber and says not a single word about the whole thing. Gives an hour-plus speech about the economy, children’s health insurance, the Middle East. What a set on that guy. But he was right. It’s the only time the president gets higher ratings than an NFL game. Don’t respond to critics. Say what you want 30 million Americans to think. Obama should take heed, ignore the haters, and use tonight to start writing the history of his presidency.