SOTU-lite

State of the Union speeches are sort of like party platforms: Once they’re delivered, nobody much remembers what’s in them.

What we do remember is the controversy — Bill Clinton giving his 1998 speech in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and all eyes on Hillary; more recently, last year, President Obama harshly criticizing a Supreme Court ruling and Justice Samuel Alito mouthing the words, “that’s not true.” Alito later said he felt like “a potted plant” and didn’t see the point of attending, and this year he stayed away, as did Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

As always, the crowd pleasers came when POTUS focused on plain people in the audience; on their tragedies and successes — seated with the first lady, the parents and brother of the 9-year-old girl murdered by a madman who was trying to assassinate Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.); the small-businessman who brainstormed a way to drill the Chilean miners to safety.

President Obama’s speech last night was flat, devoid of memorable lines. Still, it’s always fun for me — kind of like playing license plate games as a kid on a family road trip — to identify the members of Congress and Cabinet and staff that I spend so many hours every day studying. This year was more challenging than most because in an effort to tone down political rancor came odd couplings of Republicans and Democrats — Illinois Senator Mark Kirk (R) with his date Dick Durbin (D); Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) with Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). I would have aced a test on Cabinet members and Supreme Court justices, done pretty well on the president’s staff — there was the impeccably groomed new chief of staff, Bill Daley — and failed on the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The podium itself was interesting. I had noticed at the state dinner for the president of China that President Obama is looking skeletal, diminished when he stands next to Michelle. He looked painfully thin last night. Rumor last week had it he was coloring his hair. Nope, it’s getting noticeably grayer.

The new Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-Ohio), who introduced the president and sat behind and above him looked like he had heartburn or was dying for a cigarette. Obama probably could have skipped his nicotine chewing gum and gotten his fix from Boehner’s fumes.

Vice President Biden, sitting beside Boehner, looked his usual happy self, but in the absence of his former partner, Nancy Pelosi, there was no color coordination. I always suspected that Biden’s tie and Pelosi’s suit required some pre-show planning. Biden and Pelosi were also hugely enthusiastic and synchronized applauders of the president. That too went the way of Pelosi’s defeat. Biden applauded the promises and platforms that appeal to Democrats. Boehner was given to just sitting there, looking like he’d rather be enjoying a steak and a cigarette — no applause for the DREAM Act, tuition tax credits, high-speed rail, guaranteed health insurance for pre-existing conditions, raising taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The speech, interrupted 80 times for applause, lasted 62 minutes, which was about 30 minutes too long. What I’d love to know is if the Cabinet member — this year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar — who is required to stay away from the speech so he or she can carry on the government in case the unthinkable occurs watched the SOTU. Or did he secretly sneak away to a movie?

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