By Jacqui BanaszynskiI sat down to watch the State of the Union address this week out of a sense of obligation and, to be honest, a somewhat dark curiosity. How scripted would it be? How predictable? How long? Mostly, how boring? President Biden isn’t known as a great orator. He practices, hard and long, but still stumbles into an occasional stutter. He rambles and repeats himself. His favorite word seems to be “Look.,” which always precedes a key message he’s trying to deliver. Many of the pundits, on both sides of the political chasm, actually think he won some votes purely by virtue of being a calm antidote to four years of Donald Trump.
As anyone paying attention knows by now, boring was not part of the script Tuesday night. Or, if it was in the script, Biden veered from it with a few moments of surprise and rapier politicking. The next morning, one social media commentator actually wrote that the president delivered a “can of whoop-ass.” (Don’t know what that term means? Google it. It’s a real thing.)
My reading of post-speech coverage was a bit more restrained, but still offered moment after moment of writing gems worth learning from. Here’s a sampler:
In piece from The New Yorker, political columnist Susan B. Glasser used sensory descriptions to relay bits of the evening. She wrote about Biden’s determination to restore “traditions of cross-aisle cooperation in a capital made ever more sclerotic by Donald Trump’s four years of chaotic rule.” She made mention of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s attempt to get his fellow Republicans to behave with “audible shushing.”
USA Today columnist Rex Huppke can swing from the sincere to the satirical to the downright snarky. He captured a moment — to some, the moment — of the night like this:
(Biden) went off script regularly, parrying Republican lawmakers who heckled him, at one point backing the whole party into a corner and getting them to swear to protect Medicare and Social Security benefits.
I’ve never seen anything like it in a State of the Union speech – they ran at him like a pack of lemmings and, with a wink and a grin, he politely directed them to the cliff.
(BTW, if you can access it, read the State of the Union alt-speech Huppke wrote. Think of it as Biden Unplugged, or perhaps What the Far Right Heard.)
Even Heather Cox Richardson offer a wow moment. Her daily “Letter from an American” newsletter is as informed, clear, calm and accessible as anything summarizing the uncalm world of today’s politics. She’s a genius at unwonking the wonk, and is not prone to literary preening. But she understands the power of a revelatory detail, as she demonstrated in a paragraph about the political divide over assault rifles.
Biden led the fight to get them banned in 1994, but when Republicans refused to reauthorize that law, it expired and mass shootings tripled. Gun safety is popular in the U.S., and Republicans, many of whom have been wearing AR-15 pins on their lapels, booed him.
A beat or event that is presumed to be boring need not be if you learn to see it through the layered lenses of good writing. Politics, especially, is a world of high drama and high stakes that is too often reduced to bureaucratic drone or overhype analysis. That serves need the public nor the press.
But reporters who can follow the gamesmanship, the asides and the revelatory details make coverage both accessible and meaningful.