Biden Paints the State of Disinterest

“I think I will watch paint dry this evening,” wrote my frequent social media correspondent, Andrew Chalfant. (a.k.a., @thoughtsoplenty). He was referring to how he planned to entertain himself on the evening of Joe Biden’s State of the Union Address. Having been required to attend several such addresses over the years, I did not endeavor to dissuade him. In fact, I concurred. 

In the course of my time as an elected official in the legislative branch of federal, state, and county governments, I heard State of the Union speeches by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama; State of the State addresses by Michigan Governor John Engler; and the State of the County addresses by the late Wayne County Executive Edward H. McNamara. Indeed, in the instance of the State of the Union, as a member of the Republican leadership I had the duty to help escort the president into the House chamber. (I’d like to thank President Obama again for the piece of gum I “borrowed” as we awaited his arrival off the floor.) 

Throughout the years, can you guess what all of these federal, state, and local addresses had in common? 

In between shout outs to members of the crowd who represented sundry constituencies and topical issues, the orating chief executive let everyone know he was doing a great job! And, you know what else? He had big plans to do an even greater job! Now, who wouldn’t want to watch that?


But, like Alex inA Clockwork Orange” with eyelids forcibly lifted in a conduct-aversion experiment, I was compelled to pay attention to these addresses as part of my duties as an elected legislator. Often during these annual spasms of political theater, I had to remind myself that I had volunteered for this duty. And do it I did, gritting and bearing through every choreographed minute of feverishly penned and polled passages and policies that were forgotten as quickly as they were uttered. Quick—recite a passage of your favorite State of the Union Address that was delivered after the advent of television. 

I rest my case. Any “State of” address—federal, state, or local—is first and foremost intended to maximize the chief executive’s opportunity for positive earned media; and, secondly, to provide partisan talking points for their legislative, party, and media supporters. 

Shaping the agenda may be a goal, but that is less determined by the address than it is commenced by its delivery and the subsequent political benefit (or fallout). Still, a weary, wary legislator must stomach the spectacle on the odd chance something important may accidentally escape the chief executive’s mouth.

Once, following a State of the Union by President Bush, a friend who had spied me in the audience on television asked: “It must have been so exciting!”

Quietly, I wondered if he’d been drinking. “I need to know what the president wants to do—or at least what he says he wants to do—and figure out how it will impact my district.”

My inquirer was flummoxed. “But the pageantry!” 

Confirming my suspicion he was under the influence, I curtly concluded the conversation: “It’s work.”

And work it was—be it in Detroit, Lansing, or Washington, D.C. “State of” addresses are ultimately acts of political onanism by a self-aggrandizing chief executive reciting a piece of hagiography from a teleprompter and the camera-bombing, blood-red-tie-clad legislators preening and pimping their own “brands” for the benefit of cable TV bookers’ attention. Few politicians could resist such temptation—and, yes, I was one who could, and did. 

And now, as a recovering politician, I am going to let you in on a closely guarded secret of “State of” addresses: no chief executive is going to stand before a massive gaggle of the fourth estate and say, “My opponents were right: I am an incompetent and a crook.”

Hard to believe, I know. But all too true. Nonetheless, let there be shade—at the chief executive’s opponents and, if from the opposite party, his or her predecessor. Likely, this will also be in addition to blaming said opposing party predecessor during the new leader’s inaugural address. And, in both addresses, there will be more strawmen than a general audition for The Wizard of Oz

Since I’m on the subject of a State of the Union’s substance, there are actually three versions. The first version is the leaked passages dribbled out to the press prior to the address. The second is the version placed on members’ seats and handed to the press that contains the unabridged address for their edification, the historical record, and opposition researchers. The final is the edited address—a script, really—for the president to recite within the confines of the televised time frame. The president can ramble longer, as was Bill Clinton’s wont, and the press won’t pull the plug, as it would upset the tens of viewers who remained rapt by the “pageantry.”

OK, I know what you’re thinking. If the Address is printed in full, why don’t legislators just stay home and read that? Why do so many feel compelled to attend? 

First, see above about politicians, primetime pimping, and temptation. Second, many believe their constituents expect them to attend. Again, legislators asked for the job and must do their duty—or at least give the appearance they are doing it. In many ways, an elected official attending a State of the Union is akin to participating in parades. The only thing the public likes less than a politician being in their parade is the politician not being in their parade. Yet most people actually like watching parades.

Once more, I note that I no longer carry the duty to endure a “State of” address at any level of government. And, not having a room in need of painting, I spent a pleasant evening watching a new Vera murder mystery on BritBox. At least in this theatrical production, crime doesn’t pay. (Looking at you, “Big Guy.”)

During the climax, as Vera and her team zeroed in on the guilty party, suddenly my phone vibrated with an incoming alert. It was Andrew Chalfant. Had he changed his mind about watching Biden’s speech? Had his curiosity gotten the better of him and resulted not in his edification, but in a bout of ulcerous indigestion for having witnessed a compromised president casually and repeatedly dissemble to the American people? 

Bluntly, he stated: “That stuff always seems to dry a shade darker than when it’s applied.”

True enough. I was glad to know that in his wisdom, Andrew stuck to his disinterested guns; and in his choice of paint he, unlike Biden, didn’t whitewash anything.


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About Thaddeus G. McCotter

An American Greatness contributor, the Hon. Thaddeus G. McCotter (M.C., Ret.) represented Michigan’s 11th Congressional district from 2003 to 2012 and served as Chair of the Republican House Policy Committee. Not a lobbyist, he is a frequent public speaker and moderator for public policy seminars, and a Monday co-host of the "John Batchelor Show" among sundry media appearances.

Photo: Candy Welz/picture alliance via Getty Images

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