By Hank Stuever
The Washington Post
Beamed far into outer space by now, analyzed and tweeted to death within seconds of its delivery, another State of the Union address by President Barack Obama fell on admiring and disgusted ears Tuesday night. You could almost feel it being lost to the ages in real time, in a nation where practically everyone is checking to see whether their last comment was retweeted or not. (I think my favorite RT of the evening was from @TheTweetOfGod: "I was trying to come up with a neat way of saying John Boehner looks like a constipated apricot but I couldn't.")
Like many of you, I can no longer watch important live televised addresses now without the wit and wisdom of the many virtual friends who live in my iPhone. How funny we can be, stopping the wisecracks and the spot fact-checking long enough to appropriately acknowledge the president's "They deserve a vote" refrain for grieving survivors of victims of gun violence. We go from snark to somber so fast. It's exhausting and also distracting.
This president and his successors will struggle against this for decades — obeying the formal theatrics of the State of the Union address, while speaking to a global audience of wired weirdos. Even when most Americans may be receptive to the message, we've just become too distractible to be a good audience.
Nevertheless, the president confidently delivered a speech filled with a steady stream of second-term proposals and hopeful visions. In an address that was twice as long (in total words) as his rousing inauguration address three weeks ago, some melodious lines emerged about the middle class, about what sort of jobs we all might have in the future if we get our act together, about raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour.
"After a decade of grinding war, our brave men and women in uniform are coming home," the president said in a litany of been-there, heard-that. "After years of grueling recession, our businesses have created over 6 million new jobs. We buy more American cars than we have in five years and less foreign oil than we have in 20. Our housing market is healing, our stock market is rebounding, and consumers, patients and homeowners enjoy stronger protections than ever before. . . . Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger."
Earlier in the evening, it seemed the cable networks might be able to pull themselves away from the riveting story unfolding in the mountains 80 miles east of Los Angeles as law enforcement officers possibly cornered Christopher Dorner, an ex-police officer turned slaying suspect. Americans couldn't look away from the cabin in the woods, which was now ablaze. Poor Chris Matthews of MSNBC had to devote the whole hour leading up to the State of the Union address — easily the second- or third-biggest night of punditry all year! — to this . . . this breaking news. If he was irritated, you couldn't tell. He took it like a man.
On Fox News, Bill O'Reilly and Laura Ingraham had just a few minutes to segue from the California standoff to their dripping disgust that, once again, Obama has the stage.
"This State of the Union thing. You don't get anything out of this, do you?" O'Reilly asked Ingraham.
"This has all become, sadly . . . a quasi-reality show," she said.
"Here's what drives me crazy," O'Reilly said. "I have to watch Joe Biden jump up and down [and scream] ah-ya-ya-ya. Do I really have to put myself through that?"
"This is like the Golden Globes, the Oscars, this is the equivalent in Washington. It's like the White House correspondents' dinner and the State of the Union have morphed into one event," she said, later making an outdated crack about a viral video of David Hasselhoff eating hamburgers off a floor. They were miserable. Never forget that these are the best times to watch Fox, when they are miserable. (See: Rove, Ohio results.) They have a lot of suffering left in them.
One intriguing alternative to watching dumb ol' television was to view the State of the Union through the prism of the White House's own streaming video network (which is also possible through its YouTube channel).
Here, the State of the Union (henceforth known as #SOTU, please) was split-screened and adorned with a dazzling array of maps, percentages, dollar amounts, pie charts and bar graphs — attributed in inscrutably tiny type — all rendered in the agreed-upon san-serif text and color schemes of modern-day wonkdom. What I learned: Americans spend 6 billion hours a year working on their tax returns. (Whaaaat?) The standoff on the debt ceiling costs in added interest over 10 years. (Arrrgh!) U.S. energy-related C02 emissions are way down! Immigrants represent 33 percent of the nation's engineers! Is all of this true, or is it true enough? One's eyes and ears are so easily crammed with TV, Twitter and whatever else.
The Twitterverse's value makes itself known during a #SOTU when it hears and sees things in a way you forget to notice or are ill-equipped to notice. Right away, everyone picked up and fashion-policed the Easter egg symmetry of the neckties worn by the president, the vice president and the speaker of the House; but a well-curated Twitter feed will also alert you to this clunker in the middle of Obama's speech: "We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace and free from the fear of domestic violence."
Note the "our wives, our mothers, our daughters"? To some ears that sounds like a speech by a caveman delivered to the other cavemen. By the time the pundits got their say on television, more than half an hour later, probably nobody would remember to mention it.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida got the dubious honor of delivering the Republican rebuttal. Regardless of party affiliation and political ambitions, the person who takes this job deserves everything that's coming to him or her, but also deserves a measure of sympathy. Pretty much everyone who does it winds up looking like a frightened robot. Amid his pleas for cutting government spending and preserving the Second Amendment, the dry-mouthed senator reached for . . . what is he reaching for? A panic button? A gun? A chart? It turned out to be a bottle of water that was awkwardly just out of the frame of the camera. Gulp, gulp, sputter.
Oh, how we howled from the comforts of virtual judgment.