January 21, 2015KR BlogBlogCurrent Events

Talking PBS NewsHour Live Video Blues

When President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress in September of 2009, I wrote about it for this blog. The speech has faded, of course, from national memory; only Joe Wilson’s grade-school outburst (“You lie!”) survives. Hoping to catch another moment of Wilson-level wackiness, I watched this evening’s State of the Union address with pen in hand. But nothing remarkable happened. Obama was on his game, and the Republicans (save for a bit of snarky applause) stayed quiet. With such scant material, I’ll limit myself to six observations, plus a postscript:

When John Boehner claps, he looks as if a sorceress is controlling his body, pushing his hands together. When he’s forced to actually stand up—say, in support of the soldiers—he appears put out. He resembles an uncle who has been dragged to his least favorite nephew’s school play.

Early in the speech, Obama says, “We can’t slow down businesses or put our economy at risk with government shutdowns or fiscal showdowns.” He continues:

We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix. And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, it will earn my veto.

It’s a deft bit of table turning. I immediately think of a familiar student complaint: “My teacher gave me an F.” Not at all! You earned that F!

Obama, on pay equity: “Of course, nothing helps families make ends meet like higher wages. That’s why this Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work. Really. It’s 2015. It’s time.” Feminist Joe Biden stands; masculinist Boehner remains seated.

Obama imagines Americans “pushing out into the solar system not just to visit, but to stay.” Biden and Boehner share a word during the applause. (Biden: “You want to go?” Boehner: “No, I’m good. You go.”)

Obama destroys—for all time, I hope—the “I’m not a scientist” climate-change cop-out. I wait for PBS to cut to Marco Rubio or Mitch McConnell, neither of whom will be clapping.

It’s a little weird to watch the president signing autographs. He even signs a guy’s tie.


The Republican response is delivered by the junior senator from Iowa, Joni Ernst. On the PBS stream, she waits for her cue, smile frozen in place. (The smile never thaws.) She sounds like someone who has taught English abroad for several decades: she speaks in slow, simple sentences, every word perfectly and similarly articulated. I know that she castrates hogs and wears camouflage high heels and doesn’t care what I think, but still, I want to send her this passage from Robert Frost on sentence sounds: “A sentence is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung. You may string words together without a sentence-sound to string them on just as you may tie clothes by the sleeves and stretch them without a clothesline between two trees, but—it is bad for the clothes.”

When PBS cuts back to the studio, Judy Woodruff looks concerned.