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Politics and Economy:
Harry Shearer on the State of the Union

Unlike most people commenting on the State of the Union address, I've actually stood in the well of the House, where the speech is delivered.

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Harry Shearer
Harry Shearer
on the State of the Union

Of course, the House was empty at the time, but, give or take seven dozen standing ovations, the feeling is pretty much the same.

So the modern State of the Union experience begins with the competition to set expectations: supporters set them low, to be easily exceeded, opponents set them high, to make disappointment inevitable. The one thing that both sides seem to have in common: both seem to be billing someone by the word.

Then the media spend days poring over polls, to tell us normal Americans what normal Americans want the President to tell us. The elite media, NPR and George Stephanopoulos, go one step further. They convene focus groups to replicate the info nuggets the President is getting fed by his advisors. People in Harrisburg are worried about jobs? This stuff is worth the money.

After hours of pre-game mood-setting, we are treated to the event itself. Now, I've never sat on one of the chamber's chairs, but they must be grotesquely uncomfortable, given the fact that the audience has that compulsion to stand up every minute or so. And, since Reagan era, we're treated to the guest stars. The President introduces them the way Ed Sullivan used to recognize heavyweight champs in the audience. These people are flown in so the President can bask in their reflected goodness, and, of course, to jack up the ovation count.

Finally, more polls and focus groups to tell us normal Americans what normal Americans think of the speech.

Does it matter? Do you remember any of these speeches? This year's edition has one claim to memorability. One of the guest stars was James Hoffa, Jr. That's right, in the presence of the country's most controversial trade unionist, The President reported on the State of the Union just days after ruling that thousands of members of the Justice Department can't join a union. Who says irony is dead?

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