Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Greg Hitt complains that the State of the Union Address has gone from being a speech to being a TV show. “Once a somber presidential report on the soundness of the nation, the event has become another prime-time reality- TV special.” The problem is that ever since 1982 Address, when Ronald Reagan introduced a hero who had plunged into the icy Potomac to rescue some plane-crash victims, the networks have joined in complicity with the political advisers to the president of the day to liven up the speech with frequent reaction shots of well-advertised members of the audience.
I don’t say that Mr. Hitt is wrong, but he ought to have noticed something else about the role of the TV networks in this process. It’s not just that they are slavishly co-operating with the White House flacks; they are also enhancing their own stature by bringing the President, and politics more generally, onto their territory. And in this the print media are only too happy to join them. Maybe if we want a return towards the dignity of traditional presidential speechifying and away from TV shows, we should start by registering an objection to those who review presidential speeches as if they were TV shows.
Here, for instance, is what Tom Shales, the TV critic of the Washington Post, wrote about the speech:
We like a confident president, but we don’t like a cocky president, and George W. Bush had too many moments of cockiness last night as he delivered his third State of the Union address to both houses of Congress and the viewing nation. Often the words of the speech were written to sound lofty, but Bush had such a big Christmas-morning grin on his face that they came out sounding like taunts — taunts to the rest of the world or taunts to Democrats in the hall.…The speech was pretty much so-so, and Bush’s gung-ho delivery — something approaching the forced jollity of a game show host — lacked dignity and certainly lacked graciousness. Bush has never been big on those things anyway.
Nowhere in his review of the speech does Shales make any substantive criticisms. Maybe he modestly supposed that it was not the place of a mere TV critic to make them. But whence, then, comes the authority by which, as a mere impressionistic judgment, he pronounces the President of the United States “cocky”?
But Shales now reviews every major presidential address in the Post and no one thinks anything of it. Nor is it altogether surprising that most of his reviews are critical. “He was stiff and listless, as he sometimes is without an audience present,” wrote the critic of a Bush television appearance last year. “The expression on his face suggested anxiety as much as it did resolve.” Could such an impression have had anything to do with his own politics? Maybe cockiness and anxiety and resolve are, like “bias,” in the eye of the beholder. Anyway, Mr. Shales is one of those who routinely criticize the bias of the Fox News Network while strenuously insisting that it doesn’t exist on the other networks.
The most important reason why we suffer TV critics to review presidential speeches as if they were “reality” shows — and maybe even the reason why the speeches themselves are becoming more like “reality” shows — is that the TV critic is the master figure of the age. All political punditry now aspires to the condition of TV criticism, and those who are mere pundits enthusiastically take up the critical trade themselves. Maureen Dowd, for instance, from her perch on the op-ed page of the New York Times, was scarcely to be distinguished from Tom Shales when she wrote of the President’s “steroid- infused performance” which “took his swaggering sheriff routine to new heights” According to her, the President’s saying that “America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country” was equivalent to: “Hey, we don’t need no stinking piece of paper to bring it on in other countries. If it feels good, we’ll do it, and we’ll decide later why we did it. You lookin’ at me?”
I think this is supposed to be funny. We critics have to entertain too, you know. But even Miss Dowd can hardly suppose that her “translation” does justice to the gravamen of the President’s words, which are merely a restatement of one of the founding principles of the U.N., namely the right of every nation to self-defense. In the same spirit she employs Mr. Shales’s word in criticizing “Mr. Bush’s cocky implicit defense of the idea that if you whack one Middle East dictator, the rest will fall in line.”
By an amusing coincidence, Dowd’s colleague on the Times‘s op-ed page, Thomas L. Friedman, was writing on the very same day about how “sometimes smashing someone in the face is necessary to signal others that they will be held accountable for the intolerance they incubate. Removing the Taliban and Saddam sent that message to every government in the area.” Cockiness is popping up all over the place, I guess. But then one consequence of punditry’s turning itself into TV criticism is that nobody can take the critics any more seriously than they do the TV shows.