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Altered States

Let me make a shameful admission: I really, really enjoyed the State Of The Union last night. No, not the speech itself. What I took pleasure in was the over-the-top pomp and circumstance of the whole ridiculous extravaganza: The politics of the standing ovations; the carefully choreographed details, right down to the first lady's pink power suit; even the politicians jockeying for position in order to be seen in ostensibly casual banter with the president as he made his way from the hall. The speech may not be of much political import, but if you come at it with the right attitude, it can make for great theatre.

Much of America disagrees, however – even the political junkies. Writes Josh Marshall: "I have a confession: I'm not sure when the last time was when I watched the State of the Union address. I think I may have watched it in 2003. But I'm not even certain of that. Perhaps a glance through the archives would show that I watched a bit of it last year, I don't know…The truth is, I find it unwatchable."

Tom Shales finds it forgettable. "The address, televised on all the networks from the House chamber of the Capitol, was capably presented, well organized and sometimes lofty in tone. But it was also lackluster, ordinary and, most of all, generic. With only a few changes, the same speech could have been delivered a year ago, and maybe it was. Nobody remembers these things from one year to the next anyway." Nobody? I beg to differ on that: Both Dave Chappelle and I have fond memories of that lost-but-not-forgotten Mars initiative from 2004, and I may well never forget where I was the first time I heard reference to the chilling specter of human-animal hybrids. (OK, OK, they're a big deal. Sheesh.)

Still, we can have our fun, but, ultimately, there's not much to take from the State Of The Union beyond the theatre at its surface. Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, says the speech has become a ritualistic, "constitutionally mandated press release" – "there are moments when it all sounds like those teachers [talking to] Charlie Brown," he says. In Sunday's Washington Post, Lewis L. Gould compellingly argued that it was time to "end the meaningless annual ritual" altogether. "More like an acceptance speech at a national convention than a candid review of the nation's situation at the outset of a new year, the State of the Union has evolved into a semi-imperial speech from the throne," he wrote. "In the process, the event has lost most of its reason for taking place. Congress and the president have better things to do than to be part of these empty festivities."

Well, yes, they do. Or they should. But what, exactly? Politics has reached the point where nearly every public act – speeches, conventions, even debates – is essentially a prepackaged ritual in which the last thing the public expects is to be surprised. We complain about the press for focusing too much on the artifice, the horserace and the theatre, instead of the most substantive issues. But the issues are complicated, often causing news consumers to tune out, and are tied up in political jockeying anyway. (Plus, even the issues are staged to some extent, though that's another discussion.)

So the question becomes: What else is there? It's not as though the networks aren't covering politics. I, for one, continue to be amazed at the blanket coverage that greets the State Of The Union, which runs not just on the cable news networks but on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC, depriving America of new installments of shows like "American Idol," a show that's also about artifice as opposed to reality. Can you imagine a president today saying, as Gerald Ford did in 1975, that "the state of the Union is not good?" At least Simon Cowell is honest. Politics and candor, always strange bedfellows, seem to have permanently parted ways.

Of course, it's not a tremendous journalistic challenge to cover the SOTU: All reporters have to do is show up and air it, throwing in a little analysis for good measure. They may put a little graphic up that says "news" on the bottom right corner of the screen, but there's really not a lot of journalism going on, no ferreting out of information that otherwise would remain hidden. Covering the SOTU is not a matter of bringing something to light, of creating something. It's covering something that's been created for you.

Still, it's a bit too easy to tar journalists for swallowing what they're fed, because, in the present political climate, they are likely to go hungry if they don't. There's little spontaneity of the sort in American politics that you find in the British House Of Commons. Question and answer sessions with the president rarely feature real questions, or, for that matter, real answers. Parroting talking points is an acceptable debate technique on a talk show; spin has become so ritualized it gets its own room. Theoretically, it would be great if Americans had access to more coverage of politics – if just one network covered the SOTU and the others used their hour of lost prime time to cover other political events over the course of the year. But why should they? Are John Kerry or Ken Mehlman, for whom political considerations are always at play, ever going to say anything to capture our imaginations and justify depriving us of this week's episode of "Lost?"

There is real journalism about politics to be done. But the evolution of the political game has made it harder and harder for it to be done on television, where images, not backroom reporting, are paramount. Linda Mason, CBS News' Senior Vice President, Standards and Special Projects, points out that CBS News has cut back on its coverage of the political conventions as they've become increasingly prepackaged. "We're not going to be dictated to," she says. "As they programmed more and more for us and did the business of the convention behind the scenes, we covered less and less."

But where's the endgame? Mason maintains that the State Of The Union still needs to be covered because "it's where the president sets out his agenda for the year. What he chooses to emphasize is important, because it's a sign of where he and the country will be going for the year." Except, much of the time, it's not, since many lines now come out of "lobbying by Cabinet secretaries, legislators, and actual lobbyists, all of whom see it as crucial that the president mention their pet issues in his important speech, even if he does nothing but restate familiar bromides about it," as Slate's John Dickerson put it. Networks continue to run it because they're still expected to perform a public service, and the SOTU still has a symbolic power. But, Thompson says, they probably won't be doing so much longer. Substance is slowly being sucked out of public political life. And no one, not even the journalists, seems quite sure what to do with what's taking its place.