Tuesday, January 26, 2010

WhodaThunkit?! -- State of the Union Edition: The 9 Best Things Ever Said By A United States' President.

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I'm not going to watch the State of the Union speech President Obama is set to give tomorrow night. Or tonight. Or some night. I'm not sure what night President Obama is even going to give his State of the Union speech, for two reasons:

First, I'm not sure when anything in public life happens anymore, thanks to digital video recorders. I don't think I watch "live" TV anymore; I don't watch anything as it happens but instead I tape everything and watch it when I feel like it. (Or, more accurately, don't watch it, and instead let it hang around on my DVR playlist guilting me, like the five episodes of Glee I taped but haven't watched yet. I can't watch Glee, because it's an hour long and I never feel like committing myself to a whole hour of TV, and if I do commit to a whole hour of TV, it's likely that I'm going to watch a whole hour of Season 3 of Lost, so that I can get caught up on that before the whole show comes to an end and all the secrets are revealed. I've got to get caught up on that show, as it's getting harder and harder to not have spoilers revealed accidentally, like when I see commercials for other shows in which Lost characters are starring, thereby letting me know that the Lost character's going to die or turn into a polar bear or something at some point. So if I watch an hour of TV, it's Lost, but I almost never feel like I have a whole hour to give to a TV show, and as a result, I mostly end up leavingt things stored on my DVR playlist until I can't get to sleep on a Saturday night and end up watching back-to-back episodes of a documentary on ocean life.

I love ocean documentaries, especially when they prove (as the latest one did) that the Goo Lagoon from Spongebob actually exists.

That's true! Spongebob's Goo Lagoon exists! For the uninitiated/people who don't have young children, Goo Lagoon is a lagoon in Spongebob where all the Bikini Bottom denizens go swimming, even though they're underwater. I'd show you a clip, but for some reason, all the clips of Spongebob Squarepants on Youtube are of Spongebob swearing. What's wrong with kids today? In my day, we didn't make strange videos of cartoon icons swearing; we just drew boobs in our textbooks.

I always had a problem with Goo Lagoon, because how can there be a lagoon underwater? That little scientific inaccuracy -- as I saw it -- bugged me (even though it took place in a show where a talking sponge cooks burgers at a restaurant.)

But then, last Saturday night, when I couldn't fall asleep, I watched the aforementioned back-to-back episodes of an ocean documentary, and learned about deep sea brine pools -- pools of incredibly salty, methane-infused water that is denser than regular ocean water, so it forms lagoons on the ocean bottom. Science, therefore -- real science, not "velociraptor/dark matter fake made-up science" -- has proven the accuracy of Spongebob and all is right with the world again.

Second, I don't watch the State of the Union address because it doesn't really matter. Nothing the President says in the State of the Union address has any bearing on anything, really, the way I see it. It's a lot of empty talk and political gestures, a grab-bag of applause lines and shout-outs to students who are good at science, but it doesn't do anything. The State of the Union address rarely gets specific enough for me to care about what the President says -- Oh, so you're going to repair the economy? Great! Let's see that science student again -- because without details then the lofty goals are just that: Lofty goals, with no more meaning than when kids say Someday I'm going to be an oceanographer.

I really did want to do that, too. I don't know how I got sidetracked into lawyering. I blame my science teachers for making grade school and high school science so boring.

On the other hand, rarely are the State of the Union addresses so lofty or rhetorically gifted that they're worth listening to for the sake of listening to them -- speeches that are awe-inspiring or gut-wrenching or resolute or otherwise something that I would want to hear the way I would want to hear a good song or read a good article or see a good movie. Politicians don't make those kind of speeches, not anymore.

Instead, politicians today make carefully-crafted, rhetorically neutral speeches with just the right poll-tested number of references to politically popular positions and with careful nods and bows to viewpoints on both sides of the aisle so that nobody gets too offended by the President having an agenda. The speeches are written and rewritten and polished and dusted and focus-grouped and... lifeless.

They're lifeless both as speech in and of itself, and as political speech. And nowhere is that more evident than in the Constitutionally-mandated chore of advising the Congress of the State of the Union, a task the President must undertake annually, and one which most Presidents approach, seemingly, as an opportunity to stultify the nation into submission: careful cadences summarizing positions that are as neutral as possible, interspersed with pauses for applause. "We... are going to ensure ... that our nation... takes care of all its people," President Obama is likely to say , "And... we are going to do that... while being... fiscally responsible."

[Applause. Focus on the science student, then on a sleeping Supreme Court Justice.]

I don't know why Presidents bother. They don't have to give a speech to tell Congress what the "State of the Union" is; in fact, no President from Thomas Jefferson on did it, until Woodrow Wilson revived the idea of advising Congress in person via a speech. That's 24 Presidents who didn't make the speech -- or over a hundred years of non-speechifying.

And President Obama, in particular, need not make a speech; he's already ubiquitous, getting on TV so much that people are complaining and hoping that he won't interfere with the season premiere of Lost. So why would he bother coming on to speak to Congress on a Wednesday, or Tuesday, or whenever, especially if he's not going to say anything to smart or interesting or newsworthy?

Presidents didn't used to be so bland and so careful and so politically correct. From time to time, Presidents have said some pretty excellent things -- things you'd never hear them say today, at least not on purpose. To give you something to do while not watching the State of the Union whenever it's on, I've put together The 9 Best Things Ever Said By A United States President:

9. "If the rabble were lopped off at one end and the aristocrat at the other, all would be well with the country." -- Andrew Johnson.

Comments like that might be one reason by Johnson was the first President ever to be impeached; many Presidents like to court the middle class, but rarely do Presidents these days refer to the lower-classes as "rabble," especially when Johnson himself could have been considered part of that rabble: his mother was so poor after his father died that she bound young Andrew as an apprentice tailor when he was 10. That kind of background might have been why Johnson, as a congressman, sponsored a bill to give a free farm to every poor person, though Johnson seems to have forgotten his rabble-loving days by the time he became President.

8. "Good ballplayers make good citizens."-- Chester A. Arthur.

The first Brett Favre fan ever! Chester A. Arthur wasn't actually talking about Brett, who first pondered retirement during Arthur's term as president, but was instead talking about baseball. Arthur was the first president to invite a sports team to the White House, a practice that continues to this day and for some reason also now includes Kardashians.

The team Arthur invited to visit him was "The Cleveland Forest Cities," a moniker proving that dumb team names are not limited to the 20th and 21st Century.

7. "You ain't learnin' nothin' when you're talkin'." -- Lyndon Johnson.

This should be hanging on the wall of every classroom in America. Not only is it appropriate to the school setting, but it might help teach kids of a time when politicans could drop their g's without fearin' that they'd be gettin' voted out of office. That kind of folksy wisdom is what used to be expected from Texas politicians before we dumbed that down, too, and LBJ's great quote is almost enough to let us forget that he was the one who ordered the hit on Kennedy.

6. "Let every sluice of knowledge be open and set a-flowing."-- John Adams.

Adams was good for more than just naming his son after a medical examiner whose TV show wouldn't air for 160 years or so; he also was the last-known person alive to know what a "sluice" was. How far have we fallen since the time a President could speak openly of a "sluice of knowledge" and be secure in the thought that most people would know what he's talking about? I'll give you a hint: if you google "sluice of knowledge" now, you get this:

Note how I made the picture of the President smaller
so that this picture wouldn't have to be shrunk.
That's called
prioritizing. It's an important skill.

To be fair, though, that image is in the top 3 results if you Google any phrase. Thanks, Internet!

5. "The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted."-- James Madison.

How's that for guts? We live in an era in which politicians are afraid to take a stand -- any stand -- for fear of voters not trusting them anymore, and the result is that we don't trust politicians -- ironically so: We don't trust them because they try so hard to get us to trust them.

James Madison wasn't having any truck with that, as Huck Finn might've said. He told the voters flat-out: don't trust me. And in return, he was elected twice. I bet that James Madison went out to meat market bars, met hot 1810-style women, and said stuff like "The truth is that no powerful man ought to get to have sex with you tonight." Stick with what works.

4. "My failures have been errors of judgment, not of intent."-- Ulysses S. Grant.

Oh, well, that's all right then. As long as you meant well, but totally misjudged what to do to put your good intentions into practice, then we're okay with it, right?

Grant -- who singlehandedly won the Civil War when he cleverly used his third wish to grant himself super-strength so that he could throw the Appomattox Courthouse at the charging Confederacy Army, thereby saving New Orleans (I'm fairly certain of those details, which I gathered from the Wikipedia entry on Sinbad the Comedian), may have made some mistakes while in office, but whatever they were, history has long forgotten them, just as it's forgotten the list Grant made of all the political enemies he had buried alive under the Oval Office, thanks to his timely admission that his failures were errors of judgment. That began America's long love affair with forgiving the sinner and the sin, and led directly to Oprah, Bill Clinton's second term, memoirs about affairs people had during the time they were blogging about cooking Julia Childs' recipes, and Ashley Dupre's sex advice column.

Or, to put it another way: John Edwards, 2012!

3. ""My God, this is a hell of a job! I have no trouble with my enemies . . . but my damn friends, they're the ones that keep me walking the floor nights." -- Warren G. Harding.

Harding's time in office may have been made harder not by his friends, but by his involvement in the single most boring and confusing political scandal to hit Washington since the XYZ Affair: The Teapot Dome Scandal, which as we all remember... was that chapter we never read because we were pretty sure Mr. Fleury wasn't going to put it on the test, and also because during study hall the cheerleaders were sitting just one table over and we didn't want to look too uncool in front of them, even though they never looked over our way not even once. Man, they were stuck up!

The Teapot Dome Scandal arose when Harding transferred certain oil fields from the Department of the Navy to the Department of the Interior, which promptly leased them to a couple of people who had "lent" money to the Secretary of the Interior -- loaning it in the same way that Reggie Bush was loaned $100,000 while he was at USC. When Congress found out, it leaped into action, spending three years investigating the deals, and even after that amount of time, the Senate was ready to screw it up and let the Secretary of the Interior off the hook, until a Senator noticed the loan -- equivalent to about $1.19 million in today's dollars -- a loan that the Secretary of the Interior had apparently forgotten to hide. The Secretary of the Interior ended up doing a year in prison, while, oddly enough, neither of the two men he was accused of taking a bribe from was actually convicted of bribing him.

The quote from Harding, though, makes the list because it includes two swears, so, kids, you can go swear at your parents and tell them you're quoting a US President!

2. "I like the job I have, but if I had to live my life over again, I would like to have ended up a sports writer." -- Richard Nixon.

Sports has no place for corruption and cheating, Mr. Nixon. (Or, does it?)

A judge once told me that he sometimes dreamed of being a truck driver. I myself, when I'm not regretting getting to dive down in an Alvin and find weird-looking fish, dream of my own perfect job. But Nixon really hit the nail on the head with this one, showing the allure of the greatest job known to mankind: sports writer, an especially apt quote this time of the year, when most of us are suffering through a simultaneous cold-spell/lack of football, while a select few men -- sports writers -- get to fly to Miami and get paid to talk about and watch the Super Bowl.

When I first read this quote and thought about whether a President would want to be a sports writer to get to go to Miami in January, I thought: isn't that what Presidents do, anyway? Go to big games and be President there? They can order a nuclear strike no matter where they're sitting, what with the Internet, so why not go into the owners' suite at the Super Bowl and start World War III from there? So you'd think a President wouldn't need to dream of being a sports writer. Then again, you'd think a President wouldn't order burglars to break into a political party's headquarters, or begin a political career relying on fake film hidden in a pumpkin.

1. "You can not stop the spread of an idea by passing a law against it." -- Harry S Truman.

When you say the phrase Great political speakers and thinkers in American History, it's doubtful that Harry S Truman -- he of the potentially missing punctuation mark in his middle name-- and yet, Harry S gave us this quote, which should also be hanging on the walls of every classroom in America. The US has for over 200 years tried to outlaw everything it didn't like, from equal rights for women, minorities, and gays to the numerical value of pi, and the end result is always the same: good ideas survive bad laws. (Bad ideas survive bad laws, too, but that's not really a rallying cry.)

Popularizing Harry's phrase probably won't make Americans any less likely to try to legislate against the tide of history, but it might serve to show us why those efforts fail when they inevitably do, and gives hope to those of us who back the good ideas, hope that someday every adult who wants to will be allowed to marry the person they love, hope that someday a person who needs a doctor will be able to afford to see the doctor, hope that in the richest, most free country in the world, we will someday quit selfishly guarding the gates against those who want in and realize that there's enough to go around.

The idea of America is that everyone is guaranteed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- and the idea of Americans, good Americans, is that this country has ample means to provide life, liberty and happiness to every man, woman and child who wants it, whether they're already here or whether they're overseas hoping to come here. There are those who want to bar the gates, to legislate against that hope, those ideas, that freedom and sharing -- and to them, I say, and you should say: re-read what Harry S Truman said, and quit trying to stop the spread of the idea of America.

That's what President Obama should say, when he addresses Congress; that's what all politicians and people should say: The idea of America deserves to be put into action, starting now, and he, and they, and we, should then begin challenging those who would stand in the way of that.

I doubt he'll say anything like that, though, and that's one reason I won't be watching.

This is another:

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