Handicapping the State of the Union Address

In advance of the president's speech, the press produced endless (and pointless) State of the Union preview pieces.

President Bush will spend tonight addressing the nation. So how did the press spend today? Why, by producing endless (and pointless) State of the Union preview pieces.

Many news outlets stuck with the typical recipe: two parts generalizations from unnamed “White House aides” about what the president might say (and not say); one part pontifications from academics or think tankers or political consultants about what is at stake for the president tonight; and, perhaps, a dash of “he said” assertions from Democrats “pre-butting” Bush’s speech.

A few news organizations, however, cooked up something different for the occasion.

At the Washington Post, reporter David Finkel reminds readers that tonight Bush will “be speaking to a nation that no longer approves of the job he is doing.” And yet Finkel locates “the place where they like George W. Bush more than any other place in America” — Randolph, Utah, population 480 — and files a colorful report from that corner of the Beehive State. Slightly more than 71 percent of Utahans voted for Bush in 2004, Finkel writes, and the president’s approval rating in that state is the highest, at 61 percent (versus 42 percent nationwide). And in tiny Randolph, 95.6 percent of registrants voted for Bush in ‘04 and, reports Finkel, “support for him continues to be nearly unanimous.”

Readers are introduced to Pat Orton, owner of Gator’s Drive Inn in Randolph, and the subject of passages like the following: “In small-town quiet [Orton] finishes her work. Somewhere out there are the sounds of chattering terrorists, and shivering homeless people, and helicopters ferrying soldiers, and a president rehearsing a vitally important speech. Here in 71.5 percent Utah, though, and 95.6 percent Randolph, and 100 percent Gator’s, the only sound is of a believer explaining why, come Tuesday night, she doubts she will bother to listen. ‘I don’t think there’s anything he could say that would make me dislike him,’ she says.”

Also not planning to listen is one Karen Bradley, featured in today’s New York Daily News and Baltimore Sun. Both papers had the bright idea of enlisting Bradley, who the News calls a “certified movement analyst” and the Sun describes as a “visiting professor of dance at the University of Maryland, College Park, who specializes in body-language analysis” — to explain to readers what might be gleaned from the president’s body language during tonight’s address. Said Bradley to the Sun: “I check [the speech] out with the sound off. That way I can read the nonverbal meaning all the way through. The whole world’s a dance. We’re all dancing, all the time. We always reveal.”

And finally, ABC News — in what strikes us an experiment in citizen journalism with the potential to go very, very awry — invites its audience to “give [their] own State of the Union address!” Asks ABC, “What changes would you like to make to foreign policy, the tax system or health care? Are there other issues that you think deserve more attention?” Interested persons are asked to “videotape [their] own speech, using a digital camera or a cell phone, and submit it to ABC News,” but warned that “recordings must be five minutes or less” (is that with or without applause?).

“Selected submissions” will be used during ABC’s broadcast coverage of the president’s speech.

It’s enough to make us want to spend the evening doing what Pat Orton will be doing back in Utah — anything but watching TV.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.