Notes from Washington: SOTU

There's nothing quite like a State of the Union speech for political commentators to dissect down to the bone. Or would a more apt analogy be reading tea leaves?

There's nothing quite like a State of the Union speech for political commentators to dissect down to the bone. Or would a more apt analogy be reading tea leaves?

Last night's speech by President Bush was no exception, with seemingly every possible angle covered by the broadcast and cable news channels and online and print journalists of all stripes.

Looking for an original angle of my own, I talked with a few PR agency executives in Washington and found no one to be particularly enthused about the speech, though some had kinder words to say than others. One Democrat-leaning exec said that he thought the president seemed unenergetic and without emotion except at the end when he spoke about terrorism and the war in Iraq, which he might better have led with and used to set an urgent tone for his agenda.

Meanwhile, an agency exec who used to work in the Bush administration said that upon initial reflection not much struck him about the speech, though the president's opening compliments to the new "Madame Speaker" - the first ever - were gracious, and his calling out of guests sitting with First Lady Bush, including Houston Rockets' star Dikembe Mutombo and the founder of the Baby Einstein educational products were also nice moments.

Indeed, I thought President Bush's guests were genuinely worthy of recognition. This calling out of average Joes during speeches -- which President Reagan was particularly fond of doing and which was amusingly parodied in the movie "Election," when the Reese Witherspoon character gave her speech for student body president -- has usually seemed rather false: a single mom is introduced, for instance, to illustrate the importance of some new healthcare measure advocated by the administration. The person stands up and looks like a deer caught in headlights and appears to be the product of extensive vetting by someone (a PR agency perhaps).

As one observer noted, though, the president's acknowledgement of Congress' new Democratic majority was offhand and seemed grudging.

In all, if this was in fact the best opportunity of the year for President Bush to employ the bully pulpit, last night's speech failed to wow many people. But then, perhaps too much is made of it. In a few weeks or days (or hours) political discussions will move on to something else. So along with medical dissections or reading tea leaves, how about using the analogy of NFL? In that case, the speech may be like a playoff game: it's interesting at the time to watch and discuss, but later in the week, and especially the following season, the details are hazy and it doesn't really seem to be as significant as it did at the time.

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