March 8, 2021

The Melancholy of “Fifth” State of the Union Addresses

Obama gives his State of the Union speech in 2011
Cropped. Original image by w.sears/Creative Commons via flickr

With what seems like 99% of the nation in the throes of yet another arctic blast, and the resulting ice and snow blasting a sizable chunk of that 99%, it’s only fitting that 100% of Americans are also suffering the unbearable shit storm that is State of the Union news coverage. I bet IHeartRadio listeners are even being bombarded with SOTU-related morning-show fart jokes and awful rush hour Obama puns.

If you’re really into this shit–and I am–but can’t stand one more minute of the ululating hordes of pompous and deranged talking heads, analysts, and contributors on cable news, well, sometimes it’s a good idea to retreat to the soothing bedside manner of National Public Radio. I was there today, and just happened to catch a really great segment on mid-day’s Here and Now, aptly entitled “A Brief History Of State Of The Union Speech No. 5.” You should give it a listen here

As hosts Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson dutifully explain in their incredibly good-natured narrative style, today’s SOTU speech will be Obama’s fifth (not his sixth, as most might suspect), as the message a President delivers to Congress after their first-term election is not technically considered a State of the Union address. The segment continues with audio clips of past presidents’ fifth SOTU speeches, with context, transitions, and trivia in the form of light narration. As promised, it is brief (less than nine minutes), inevitably (and reasonably) leaving significant scrutiny by the wayside. But it was good. And, while a definite break from the well-paid and obscene script-stickers on cable, it was also kind of disturbing. From Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton, the speeches betray a hit-list of failed policy, squandered resources, and busted promise.

They begin in 2006 with George W. Bush announcing the launch of a brand new “Terrorist Surveillance Program,” which would “aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected Al Qaeda operatives to and from America.” A speech in which he promised us that “appropriate members of congress [had] been kept informed.” A speech in which he claimed that this brand new program had ALREADY helped prevent terrorist attacks “essential to the security of America.” Wow, what a bizarre patriotic time that was for us as a nation. And look how well that whole “Terrorist Surveillance Program” worked out for our country’s morale and international standing.

Jumping back to 1986, we were introduced to Reagan’s best Clint Eastwood as he breathily rallied Congress to give him the line item veto. Didn’t quite work out. And when it did 10 years later for Clinton, the Supreme Court kinda found that whole thing unconstitutional.

In 1968 we were treated to Lyndon Johnson imploring the nation to patience as its troops stood guard “gallantly” in Vietnam to protect that good old American way.

Six years later, in 1974–six months before his resignation–Nixon announces the return of all troops from Vietnam “with honor,” bragging about a dinner held for the POW’s who came home “on their feet and not on their knees.” He boasted of “a period of peaceful exchange and expanding trade” with our former enemy China. The beginning of a trade that would cost our country millions of jobs. The irony of his bravado wouldn’t be recognized for decades (and still isn’t universally accepted) as he predicted a win in “the war against crime,” while in the very same breath touting the organization of a “massive campaign against drug abuse.”

And in 1998, Bill Clinton completely ignored the recently discovered Monica Lewinsky scandal. Speaking for more than an hour, he laid out the most genuinely optimistic speech of the segment, proclaiming “these are good times for America,” with 14 million newly created jobs, the lowest unemployment in 24 years and the lowest inflation in 30 years, raising incomes, dropping crime, and the highest home ownership in history. What happened to that prosperous and optimistic America? Why the precipitous drop in individual wealth and middle class prosperity? Well, all of those recently financed houses may have had something to do with it.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but what can we take from tonight’s speech? What should we look for? How do we know? Which impossible promises made tonight will be broken, spun, and brushed away never to be thought of again except by the most ardent of activists, and which will be kept and pursued and used to undermine the very fabric of our Constitution…to line the pockets of yesteryear’s corporate raiders and today’s Kochs? I don’t think we can know.

But I’ll sure as hell be watching.

-Alibi Pierce

About Alibi Pierce 193 Articles
Curates Noise Journal

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