An entire year of planning goes into the brief, televised announcement. A network of hundreds of experts vet every point. Presentation is everything. The words, carefully chosen, have the power to define the successes of the last year and set expectations for the next. But after countless hours of wrangling decisions, the audience gathered, the cameras turned on, and the show began. At 5:30am Pacific time, Mo’Nique and Tom Sherak announced the nominees for the 83rd annual Academy Awards.
Oh, and another big event happened Tuesday, too: President Obama’s State of the Union Address. At first, I thought Tuesday was merely a serendipitous convergence of the outlying regions of my geekdom. A film snob policy wonk who dreams of running away to the White House anytime she watches the West Wing can’t ask for a better news day. But more than just the sheer fun of it, Tuesday taught me something about the two events. They are more similar than you’d think.
Both events began as relatively small affairs. Article II Section 3 of the Constitution mandates that the president
shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.
George Washington delivered the first on January 8, 1790, though then it was called the President’s Annual Message to Congress. It was 1, 089 words long, delivered to 81 members of Congress in New York City. It probably took seven to ten minutes for him to read it. Until 1923 when Calvin Coolidge’s became the first address broadcast over the radio, the address was a low-key speech between the president and Congress that laid out the president’s legislative agenda for the coming year. As in so many things, the advent of telecommunications changed its nature entirely.
Likewise, the Oscars began as a modest brunch in the ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood in 1929. Douglas Fairbanks and William C. deMille hosted the event. It was a private affair (tickets were $5 per person), and fifteen people were honored for their work from 1927 – 1928. Everyone knew who’d won because the winners had been announced three months earlier. For the next few years they withheld the names until the late edition newspaper the night before, and in 1941 they introduced the sealed envelope to increase suspense (and attendance).
Both events scarcely resemble their modest origins. I had the chance to attend the Oscars last year, and it’s a machine worthy of the most robust entertainment industry in the world. An Oscar nomination means millions in DVD sales, an Oscar win even more. The entire gathering is a showcase for studios, a runway for designers, fodder for the gossip mills, and the best networking opportunity of the year for filmmakers. Try as other awards might, they don’t compare to Hollywood’s big night.
Not that the Oscars mean much when it comes to the quality of the winning films. Though there’s plenty of pomp and circumstance about the value of the craft and prestige of the selection process, any organization that would nominate James Cameron’s Avatar for Best Picture has left artistry and cinematic excellence off its priority list. They may be bigger than ever, but the Oscars are just advertising with a black tie dress code.
The same could be said of the State of the Union Address. Every year since Woodrow Wilson set the precedent of delivering the address in person, presidents have had the annual chance to lend their voices and charisma to their legislative agenda, and for most of the 20th century it has been more for the benefit of the national audience than Congress. The event has become a campaign stop in our bloated campaign seasons that force politicians to start running for reelection before they’ve had a chance to move in to their offices. As such, it’s nearly impossible for the State of the Union to transcend mere branding of the party in power.
President Obama’s State of the Union was more of the same. I seriously considered running my review from last year’s address because so much of the speech was, point for point, repetition. That’s hardly the president’s fault: at best, a great State of the Union Address is a laundry list of policy achievements and goals sprinkled with sparkling rhetoric. It’s a pep rally for the presidency, and like the Oscars, has lost most of its true significance over the years. For the next few news cycles, pundits and politicians on the right will try to follow Representative Ryan’s example and paint the president as a leftist radical bent on the financial ruin of America, while in reality this speech was even more fiscally conservative than last year’s address (which didn’t seem possible). Left-leaning commentators will tout the bold proposals of a successful president and try to remind voters of Representative Bachmann’s nonsensical, bizarre response to downplay Ryan’s points. And so it goes.
But like the Oscars, the real story is much quieter. This was a good year for President Obama. He’s accomplished an extraordinary amount of items on his agenda, the Recovery Act and Affordable Care Act both seem to be helping Americans while both are still in need of some tweaking to increase their effectiveness. Despite some fairly paranoid focus on competing with China, the speech reminded its audience that America remains strong and is likely to continue to be despite doomsayers on both sides. But the best moment of the speech is from its beginning.
What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.
If we can manage that in the midst of vigorous debate, we’ll be fine.
Well, that and if True Grit wins Best Picture.