Are State of the State Speeches Obsolete?

This week’s State of the State of speech has me wondering what function these types of events serve in the 21st Century — not just New Jersey’s annual State of the State address, but the countless “State of…” speeches that are given all over the country at this time of year by Governors, Mayors, County Executives, even the President.

More often than not, the key elements of a “State of…” speech already are known before the event takes place. Decision-makers have been briefed and information has been leaked to reporters whose news reports have made the information available to the public at-large. Although not every detail of every program is known ahead of time, there generally is an absence of suspense, save for counting the number of times the speech is interrupted by applause.

Rather than serving as the primary means of announcing new information to lawmakers and the citizenry, these speeches have become elaborate and sophisticated events. Here in New Jersey, for example, a committee of legislators escorts the Governor into the Assembly Chambers, where the Speaker and the Senate President conduct the formal proceedings of the Joint Legislative session. State Police troopers stand at attention on either side of the podium, and distinguished guests fill the chambers, as well as the Assembly Gallery.

But is all the fanfare still needed today?

From a legal standpoint, New Jersey’s State Constitution requires the Governor to communicate “the condition of the state” to the Legislature when the annual Legislative session begins in January, but it does not say how this is to be done. He or she could probably could just send an email to the state’s 120 legislators and fulfill the Constitutional requirement.

Another option would be to record the speech as a simple video message, accompanied by links to pages with specific details on initiatives, programs and other items included in the annual report. Governor Corzine recently used a video message to outline the state’s response to the economic crisis. And how often did we see presidential candidates incorporate video appeals into their campaigns over the past year or two? In fact, the Obama transition team is still emailing video messages about the President-elect and his plans.

At first glance, the idea of dispensing with the formalities of a live speech may be difficult to comprehend. But we live in a world defined by change. The Christian Science Monitor, a journalistic mainstay for 100 years, has eliminated its print edition and now is published entirely online. The New York Times has begun placing display ads on its front page. We now even have devices that make it possible to pause live TV.

But despite all of the technology available to us today, America is not yet ready to delegate speech-making to television studios and soundstages. As a nation, we continue to value spectacle and pageantry. For example, even though the vast majority of us experience events such as the Olympics or the Super Bowl via TV, would the telecasts of these contests have the same appeal if they took place in empty arenas? And why else would millions of people be making plans to travel to Washington, D.C., next week so they can say they were there when the United States inaugurated its first African-American president?

The roots of America’s infatuation with spectacle and pageantry date back to the 1800s. Before the advent of mass media, there were few if any other options for those who wished to actively engage in the political process.

“Much of political life was necessarily acted out in the streets,” historian Michael McGerr wrote in The Decline of Popular Politics. “However undemocratic the results, American politics from roughly the (eighteen) ‘thirties to the ‘nineties demanded the legitimacy conferred by all classes of the people through parades and rallies and huge turnouts.”

Today there are numerous options that allow us to take part in the political process, among them websites, blogs, cable television and YouTube. Perhaps these options will lead us to a time when traditional State of the State and State of the Unions speeches are things of the past.

But we are not yet there.

As former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote in What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era, “Speeches are not significant because we have the technological ability to make them heard by every member of our huge nation simultaneously. Speeches are important because they are one of the great constants of our political history. For two hundred years, from ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ to ‘Ask not what your country can do for you,’ they have been not only the way we measure public men, they have been how we tell each other who we are.”

And this is precisely why a few hundred people, myself included, converged at the New Jersey State House on Tuesday to see and hear Governor Corzine’s 2009 State of the State address, rather than to watch it on NJN or on the web in the comfort of our homes or offices.

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