Well, it was more interesting than the Super Bowl.
Although that’s damning it with faint praise. Still, President Donald Trump finally gave his State of the Union address Tuesday night, and whatever you think of it as a political event – pundits can take up that fight elsewhere – as television it was interesting, at times fascinating.
It was a wide-ranging speech that was at times partisan, at times touching, at times kind of funny and at all times another episode of the Trump Show (that’s not a dig, just a fact of this administration).
Trump, unlike most of his predecessors, doesn’t release copies of his speeches before delivering them, but he and his staff did offer excerpts, and aides hinted at a coming-together kind of address, a reach across the aisle to try to bridge the gap between a deep partisan divide.
What made the speech compelling as television was, among other things, the question as to whether Trump would actually follow that road map. Would he be Teleprompter Trump or Twitter Trump, two aspects of his personality that bear little resemblance to one another?
There was a little of both on display, it turned out, as Trump opened the speech by appealing to both sides of the aisle: “We meet tonight at a moment of unlimited potential,” he began. “As we begin a new Congress, I stand here ready to work with you to achieve historic breakthroughs for all Americans. Millions of our fellow citizens are watching us now, gathered in this great chamber, hoping that we will govern not as two parties but as one nation.”
That, of course, drew thunderous applause and a standing ovation by Republicans and Democrats – one of 102 times the speech was interrupted by applause, according to Fox News.
But the applause wasn’t always universal, and Trump wasn’t always so chummy – he made explicit references to abortion that had the GOP cheering and Democrats sitting on their hands, as just one example. And he made references to building a wall along the southern border of the U.S., perhaps the subject of the greatest division among Americans (or so the media tell us). That, too, divided the audience.
Of course, everyone noticed. In many ways, the State of the Union has become a made-for-TV event, in which we monitor body language (watching how California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, reacted was a favorite parlor game on social media) and reaction and try to parse meaning out of almost everything. Did Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, really clap fewer times than New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the high-profile Democratic star?
Probably not, but the networks did capture McConnell pointedly not cheering a few applause lines, images that doubtless will launch a thousand think pieces and offer fodder for talking heads for days. (Ocasio-Cortez, for her part, applauded even less than her Democratic peers, but she did clap occasionally.)
As for the idiotic chants of “USA! USA!” by both sides, well, come on, folks. You’re members of Congress, not fans at a hockey game. Jingoism isn’t patriotism.
What does it all mean? Who knows? Maybe McConnell had a stomachache. But this is one of those times when everyone – the media, the political class and everyone watching – tries to read something into everything.
There were some genuinely great TV moments. Many of the women Democratic members of the House and Senate dressed in white, a salute to the women’s suffragist movement. (Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, whose taste in fashion has made headlines, notably work dark pink. Which obviously means … who knows?)
They were easy to spot, sitting together. At one point, Trump said, “No one has benefited more from our thriving economy than women, who have filled 58 percent of the newly created jobs last year,” and the white-clad contingent stood up and cheered wildly, a pretty funny (and unintended by Trump) recognition that this Congress has more women members than any in history.
“You weren’t supposed to do that,” Trump said, a rare display of poking fun at himself.
“All Americans can be proud that we have more women in the workforce than ever before,” he continued, before adding, “Don’t sit yet. You’re going to like this.”
Then he said, “Exactly one century after Congress passed the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, we also have more women serving in Congress than at anytime before.”
It was funny and inspiring. Most of all, it was welcome, and it was compelling TV for the reason any good TV is: It was unexpected.
Bill Goodykoontz is a film critics and media columnist at The Arizona Republic, where this column first appeared. You can follow him on Twitter: @goodyk.
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