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William Rivers Pitt | Obama, Boehner and the American Theater

William Rivers Pitt: When you’re talking about a State of the Union speech, you are talking about theater.

Here’s the deal.

When you’re talking about a State of the Union speech, you are talking about theater. Anyone who does not know that, who gets themselves all geeked up over what a president says during these things, who thinks real action is afoot in the chamber, who thinks even one word spoken has any meaning beyond political showmanship, has entirely missed the point.

These grandiose television programs are, in truth, a relatively recent occurrence; it was in the era of Ronald Reagan that these speeches became the Very Big Deal they are today, because Reagan’s people knew that he could put on one hell of a show, and so they turned these yearly affairs into a great spectacle, because their guy could always be counted on to give a dominant performance…and every president since has been required to light up the room and the networks in similar fashion, with a performance that has everything to do with sounding good, and very little to do with actually getting anything done.

President Obama on Tuesday night delivered a fine example of the phenomenon, for what it was worth … but if you want to know how effective it was, if you want to know how much actual legislation will come of it, look no further than my notes on the event.

Three words appear in my notes after every line I jotted down as I watched last night, after the line on deficit reduction, on the American Jobs Act, on the president’s proposals about science and technology investment, on climate change, on infrastructure development, on immigration reform, on passing the Violence Against Women Act in the House, on the Paycheck Fairness Act, on raising the minimum wage, on education reform, on ending the war in Afghanistan next year, on helping veterans, on gun control, and even on a 102-year-old woman from North Miami who was celebrated for casting her vote after waiting hours to do so.

The same three words in my notes after every line: “Boehner didn’t stand.”

Translation: “Dead in the House.”

Translation: Dead in the water.

If that sad, sorry, orange-hued sack of failure couldn’t summon the simple decency to ask his legs to support his carcass for a 102-year-old voter being celebrated on a night when theater is all, what on this Earth makes anyone think he will allow legislation on women’s rights, education, infrastructure repair and the minimum wage to come to a vote in the House?

Boehner didn’t even stand for dead children last night. There is not much else to say on the matter.

I can appreciate President Obama’s strategy last night. The whole event was about shame: he reeled off a laundry list of very popular proposals, and let all of America look over his shoulder at the Oompaloompa who would not rise for any of it, because the Oompaloompa is a captive of the far right, and cannot be seen to show favor of any kind to the Kenyan Terrorist Muslim Socialist. Thus, the Oompaloompa was required to spend the entire speech looking like he’d sat on an open bag of weasels who have dreams of proctology and the tools to give it a go.

And all on national television.

That’s theater.

The president offered a number of very fine proposals last night, and did so in a manner that was rousing without being overbearing. The portion of his speech on gun control was moving indeed. He papered over a number of very dark corners – the legal justification for his drone program and the targeting of American citizens, for example, got a wink and a nod and a promise of more transparency to come, no, really, he promised, so it’s OK – and sanded down some rough edges, and delivered a performance worthy of the moment.

But, in the end, it is Washington DC’s big see-and-be-seen night; it is theater, and that is all. The president played his part enthusiastically, the Speaker played his part reluctantly, and the horserace press will spend the next couple of days writing about it all as if it really had an impact. That’s theater, too.

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