An Hour and 10 Moments

How the television pundits covered Obama’s big speech.

Slate on the State of the Union: John Dickerson says Obama returned to the themes he campaigned on.Christopher Beam describes the partisan disharmony on the floor of the House during the speech. Bruce Reed praises Obama’s reassuring, common-sense blueprint. Fred Kaplan argues the federal spending freeze should extend to the Pentagon, too. See images from Obama’s first year in office, as well as past presidential speeches, from Magnum Photos.

Barack Obama

Our Constitution declares that from time to time, the president shall pre-empt Law & Order: Special Victims Unit to give Congress information about the state of our union. This event supplies broadcasters with an opportunity to rework their first drafts of history and to overwork metaphors about “the reset button,” invoked as if the executive branch were a Nintendo 64. The cable-news drumbeat for last night’s speech had been building since the Tuesday before when—it seems to have been accepted as fact—the election of Massachusetts’ Scott Brown to the Senate signaled a setback such as the Democratic Party had not seen since William Jennings Bryan had to settle for silver in the election of 1896.

On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow, ensconced in her role as a flinty voice of liberal disgust, had been chiding President Obama from the left. On Fox News, Sean Hannity had grown superlatively cocky, much to the detriment of his style of invective. On Monday, he brought no finesse to pre-disdaining “that big propaganda speech Wednesday night.” But things only got into gear about four hours before the speech, when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer framed the question of Obama’s night—”Can he find the words to put the country and his administration back on track?”—and then, at 5:08 p.m. ET, wondered whether Obama would wear a red tie or a blue one. Question: How much damage would Obama have done to his approval ratings and the Dow Jones industrial average had he worn a bow tie? Or borrowed a bolo from Bill Richardson?

For the record, Wolf’s tie was a kind of silvery periwinkle. Meanwhile, his colleague Anderson Cooper—still stationed in Haiti, CNN being the news network most interested in news—did not wear a tie at all. (This was sensible. Given the tight fit of his T-shirt, he would have looked like a very classy bachelorette-party stripper.) On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann went for a pastel-green number that lent some dignity to his indignation as he panderingly wasted time on the amusing matter of bugs in the Bayou. On CNBC, where anchors dared to present bar graphs charting unemployment statistics—as opposed to CNN’s pie charts depicting what citizens had told pollsters about their precious feelings—John Harwood dressed his shirtfront in a bankerly imperial purple.

Wolf told us that HUD’s Shaun Donovan would be watching the SOTU—that or Keeping Up With the Kardashians—from an undisclosed location lest “the unspeakable” come to pass. He was the “designated survivor.” Does CNN have a designated survivor? Would that explain the absence of Jeffrey Toobin? Or was he in fact somewhere on its crowded set? There were moments when CNN had 10 analysts on air, each divining the mood of the nation with the help of his or her laptop while three anchors strode among them like proctors. I believe that Campbell Brown was the proctor who told us that the speech would run 70 minutes. I’m certain that David Gergen was the analyst who groaned upon hearing this news.

I flipped over to Fox News; A.B. Stoddard of the Hill said, “Every speech Obama gives is the speech of his life.” I flipped over to ABC; Diane Sawyer said to George Stephanopoulos, “And George, I was saying to you earlier, ‘How many times have we said President Obama has to give the speech of his life?’ ” This was Diane and George’s first big night out since she had taken over the evening newscast and he the morning one, each rather quietly, like the soft opening of a swank bistro. Diane was conspicuously blurry. Her throat croaked. Her tongue slipped. Her manner was loose: “Can I tell ya a couple of tweets that have come out of this room?” But George was sharp, and he, like Wolf, dared to work the fashion beat, reporting that Joe Biden wore a purple tie and Nancy Pelosi a lilac blazer to indicate a blue state/red state dye-pot frame of mind. “I don’t think that was entirely by accident,” said George. “Really?” slurred Diane. “That level of calculation?”

Obama then gave a speech, his rhetoric relaxed and paternal—which is not necessarily to say paternalistic. When he delivered his contentedly clichéd laugh line about the bank bailout being “about as popular as a root canal,” the camera gave us a view of Tim Geithner, whose tie was red and who seemed to have forgotten his collar stays. We must give all due credit to Biden and Pelosi for their performances. As you might know from interviewing a starlet, say, or pretending to listen to your husband, looking like you’re paying attention to someone is much more difficult than actually paying attention to someone. Still, Biden never seemed that eager to work his quads to get in on a standing ovation. He was pretty slow to get up even for such lines as, “America must always stand of the side of freedom and human dignity.”

Obama then finished his speech. How long was the speech, Diane? “An hour and 10 moments.”