State of the Union: Beyond mad as hell and wanting straight talk

It's been a season of Reality TV taken to a new level by the squabbling GOP field. Can the president better articulate our need for leadership? 

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President Obama delivers the 2010 State of the Union address.

It's been a season of Reality TV taken to a new level by the squabbling GOP field. Can the president better articulate our need for leadership? 

I’ll admit it, I’ve been watching too much political theater on TV of late.  Thanks to live streaming video, I’ve seen all but one of the Republican presidential primary candidate debates so far, falling under the sway of a spectacle that makes so-called Reality TV look like Playhouse 90 by comparison.

 I don’t know if it was it Herman Cain’s fast-food approach to rhetoric,  Jon Huntsman’s laborious wisecracks, Rick Perry’s dubya moments, Newt Gingrich’s turn as Doctor Evil (with history PhD), Mitt Romney’s botox smile, Rick Santorum’s earnest boyishness (or boyish earnestness), or Michelle Bachman’s extraterrestrial vibe, but somewhere along the line there, we seem to have collectively moved right past Howard Beale and into a great unknown.

In fact, so much of the country is so far past Beale's “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore,” it’s unclear if any fictional hero has uttered a line worthy of expressing the current state of affairs.

So, with President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address upon us, I feel a certain fatigue for political theater, even of the most official kind.  The joint session of Congress. The speculatiave “will-they-clap-or-won’t-they” punditry. The mention of which cabinet member drew the short straw and is hiding out (with Dick Cheney?) in an undisclosed location for continuity of government purposes. The Sergeant at Arms and his “Mister Speaker . . .” routine. The hand-shaking and the long, long applause. The special guests sitting near the First Lady, who will, naturally, stand at some point in order to illustrate a larger point by way of their touching personal narrative. Of course I’ll watch all of this, but I just don’t feel as excited as I usually do.

This fatigue inspired me to go back and watch President Obama’s election night victory speech from 2008 to see if I could recapture some of the magic that has dribbled away lately. Thanks to YouTube, it’s all there — the words, the pictures, Oprah smiling, Jesse Jackson’s inscrutable stare, and thousands of Chicagoans braving Grant Park on a chilly November evening.

The promises of a new way and the rhetoric of hope wear pretty thin after the past three years, but the story of 106-year old voter Ann Nixon Cooper, used as a device to tell the story of America in the 20th century, still reduces me to tears. The line about “when bombs fell on our harbor” are perhaps the most eloquent words spoken about World War II since FDR addressed Congress on Dec. 8. 1941 about the “date which will live in infamy.”

After watching the 2008 speech all the way through, I’m not mad as hell, but I do want leaders (school superintendents, mayors, governors, presidents) who can orate and then take action. Tell us the problem(s) we face. Don’t spin, but do point out the good things we still have going for us. Articulate what we are going to do and what each of us can do to move us all forward. Be forceful enough to convince your opponents that they need to get on board or get the hell out of the way. Then, get on with it!

Now, as far as a catchphrase worthy of replacing Howard Beale’s once-immortal words, there’s only one I can think of at the moment, as President Obama faces the Republican majority in the House and millions of disgruntled voters around the country try to figure out what to do next: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”


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