The "State of the Onion Address" in Review - Sunday Political Brunch February 10, 2018


BRIDGEPORT, W. Va. – Okay, time for true confessions of a news reporter. I never learned to type. I’ve been in the media 42 years and am still a “hunt and peck” typist, often with funny consequences. In all my years covering politics – including six in Washington, D.C – I have typed State of the Onion many times. Thank God for editors! But onions can be sweet and tasty, or pungent and bitter. So can State of the Union addresses. Let’s “brunch” on that this week:

“His Best Speech Ever” – I’ll generate lots of arguments and comments over this, but it was President Trump’s best speech ever. Let’s be clear, I am not grading him on policy or content, nor am I agreeing or disagreeing with his issue positions. I am grading him solely on delivery. I teach and consult on public speaking and communication, at times at the adjunct college professor level, so I believe I have some chops and experience to give fair evaluation. Overall, his delivery gets an “A,” whether you agree with his positions or not.

“Candidate Trump vs. President Trump” - I have covered President Trump about 15 times in person, and have written about him lots as a political figure dating back to 2011. Candidate Trump always throws the pre-written speech away, as he has done so often as president. He loves to ad-lib, riff, and just have a stream of consciousness conversation that I have seen go one or two-hours. It’s usually in front of a partisan, supportive crowd. He loves to bash the press, and eggs on the audience, which often pelts us with popcorn buckets and other debris. It’s okay. It’s part of our job. He’s continued this approach often since entering the White House.

“On Being Presidential” – The critique of many, including me at times, is that the president has not been very “presidential,” whatever that means. He’s had the public persona of “a bull in a China shop,” which has endeared him to many and at the same time has offended many others. I thought he might take that bombastic tone again on Tuesday night, but he surprised me. It was a calm, measured, deliberate, disciplined and tactical address that looked like it was stolen right out of President Reagan’s playbook, or from President Clinton’s strategic approach, too.

“The Reagan-Clinton-Trump Connection” – The one thing I like about these three presidents is that they can be conversational and even folksy. Yes, they read off the teleprompter, but it can sound genuine and from the heart (really a Reagan-Clinton trait, that Trump finally achieved for the first time this year). Of course, a speech is just a speech. Unless it translates into meaningful legislation, it’s just a night of political cheerleading and nothing more.

“Disarming the Opposition” – It was a historic night. This is the largest contingent of women to serve in Congress in American history, at roughly 25 percent in both chambers. Many of the female lawmakers – including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – chose to wear white outfits, as a show of solidarity and clout. It was brilliant. At times the TV cameras focused on the predominately Democratic group, as members sat on their hands and did not applaud Trump.

“Co-opting the Agenda” – But, then there were times Trump endorsed issues they support, like paid medical leave for expectant moms, and they stood, cheered and clapped. To the average viewer, it looked like they were supporting him (even though they were just applauding their own achievement). But he co-opted the agenda, and Trump was almost giddy from the podium.

“Show Me the Money” – Look, we all know that politics and elections usually turn on the state of the economy. For many people – including women – the overall economic outlook is improving. “No one has benefited more from our thriving economy than women, who have filled more than 58-percent of the jobs created this year,” Trump said. The women in the audience – including many of those in white outfits – applauded vigorously. “You weren’t supposed to do that (stand),” said Trump, as other parts of the House audience started chanting, “USA, USA!!” If Ronald Reagan was still alive, he could probably sue Trump for plagiarism.

“We’ve Seen this Play Before” – President Clinton, who successfully co-opted so much of the Republican agenda in the 1990s, might be charged with theft! I’m kidding of course, but our political history is legend for stealing good ideas from the other party. Republican Richard Nixon liked the idea of Senator Ed Muskie (D-ME), to create an Environmental Protection Agency, so Nixon created the EPA, before any Democrat president had the chance.

“Where the Rubber Meets the Road” -- I don’t mean to throw a wet blanket on the festivities. Polls indicate 70-plus percent of Americans liked Trump’s speech. The problem is all State of the Union addresses are at a fixed moment in time. We gather around our TVs and listen. Some boo; others cheer. But here’s my test: Name a famous line or promise from the 2013 State of the Union, or the one from 1999? Can you posit a promise made in any State of the Union that was later approved that touched your life? Probably not, is my guess.

“The Politics of Theater” -- It’s often an inspirational night to make us proud to be Americans – with the tributes to Apollo astronauts and World War II heroes. It was masterfully done. President Trump early-on introduced three living veterans from D-Day in World War II, set for its 75th anniversary this year. Then we met Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, with that 50th anniversary approaching this July. Then we met veterans who liberated a Holocaust survivor. It was classic Americana. Trump never uttered his signature line, “Make America Great Again” in his speech. But the tributes to the vets and astronauts simply said, “We were great; we’ve always been great; and we’ll stay great!” It was well executed!

"In Memoriam" - At press-time I am getting word that former Rep. John Dingell, Jr. (D-MI) has passed away at age 92. He succeeded his dad in Congress, and then was succeeded by his wife Debbie. John Dingell was the longest-serving House member in American history. I had the honor to cover him at Cox Broadcasting when I was the Washington, DC Correspondent for WKBD-TV50 in Detroit in the 1990s. God rest his soul.

What are your thoughts and impressions from the State of the Onion – I mean Union – address? Click the comment button this page or at

© 2019 MarkCurtisMedia, LLC

Mark Curtis, Ed.D., is Chief Political Reporter for the five Nexstar Media TV stations serving West Virginia and its five surrounding states, and the District of Columbia.

Photo courtesy: Getty Images

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