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Obama's State of the Union feels comfortably traditional in the age of info overload

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President Obama delivers the State of the Union address.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 12:32 AM

As a function of the times we live in, Tuesday night's State of the Union address and the traditional theatrics that accompany it (Purple necktie? Lavender? "Or am I colorblind, Candy Crowley?" Wolf Blitzer pleaded to his CNN colleague upon first glimpsing President Obama's tie) are now tweeted, dissected, fact-checked, mocked, praised and parodied, and then all of that is retweeted even before the president uttered a word of it on live television.

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Somehow that's progress in a world where a 60-minute speech was regarded by many at home as unbearably long, and where wired Americans started emitting a series of undeserved electronic zzz's not more than 20 minutes in. Even Vice President Biden, sitting behind the president, looked down below the varnished wood once in a while, and you had to wonder what he was doing with his thumbs.

Blessedly, the post-Tucson-massacre commingling idea of Democrats and Republicans sitting together may have shaved minutes off the usual SOTU running time. Somewhere out there, behavorial scientists might be retesting the basic theories of what causes standing ovations. Turns out they work more like the stadium wave, and you disable them by breaking up team loyalties.

The president spoke of a "We-do-big-things" ideal America, a country on the verge of "our generation's Sputnik moment," a technological wake-up call that taps into our paranoia of being second-best (or ninth-best, or 30th-best). A moment is all you get in a culture composed of nanoseconds. "Thirty years ago, we couldn't know that something called the Internet would lead to an economic revolution," Obama said.

Well, we also couldn't know how crazy the Internet would make us, turning us into a nation of argumentative, hyperwired know-it-alls. It's not Sputnik moment; it's Sputnik brain. Beep beep beep beep, great at transmitting noise and increasingly bad at receiving facts or listening patiently. Which is to say I watched my Twitter feed as closely as I watched my TV.

We are still groping our way through events caused to some degree and then soothed by multimedia outbursts followed by orchestrated responses. Whatever happened in Tucson not even three weeks ago (feels longer, doesn't it? That's life in in the tweens), it has resulted in new uses of TV and video that frankly confuse as many people as it excites.

I still have yet to fully digest the mixed meanings and intents of the president's "Together We Thrive" event that followed the Tucson shooting - part memorial, part peace movement, part pep rally, and once again, some really great public speaking on Obama's part. (But still: Hunh? )

Even more bizarre was Sarah Palin's "blood libel" video that soon followed, uploaded to Facebook and then rebroadcast across every medium, feeling in a way like culture jamming or pirate TV. There was something very "PEOPLE OF EARTH" about the delivery method, regardless of content. And it didn't take long at all for others to post parodies and visual analyses of Palin's video - one reduced it simply to the moments where Palin took a breath, a subversive move that bordered on video art.

So in age where it's becoming more difficult to separate fact from fiction and performance from substance, one could almost find comfort in SOTU's traditions. We don't know exactly what there is to talk about, as witnessed on MSNBC's pre-show coverage of the milling about and mingling before the speech. The gang burned off time noting wardrobe choices, almost like a red-carpet pre-show. "Women wear red," Chris Matthews observed. "That's [Missouri Sen.] Claire McCaskill, I think. Women wear red at events like these to draw attention to themselves?"

Rachel Maddow, a know-it-all who in fact still does seem to know it all, especially on live television, replied, "Even though there is a woman wearing white right next to her." (Insert obligatory Edward-R.-Murrow-spinning-in-his-grave joke here. And while you're at it, stick newly axed Keith Olbermann in with him.)

Once he got going, the president gave an old-fashioned State of the Union speech. He spoke of a nearby future when schoolchildren might actually believe (instead of just being told) "that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair." This line drew a bit of applause for Obama, but it was his follow-up to that line that was more striking: "Success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline."

The speech was filled with good lines that nevertheless failed to cohere into a rousing whole. The president celebrated teachers, with words that for once seemed to mean it: "To every young person listening tonight who's contemplating their career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation, if you want to make a difference in the life of a child, become a teacher." It plainly addressed immigration, the wars and taxes, and for the wonks among us, it rightfully shamed the nation's infrastructural state. "It makes no sense," the president said more than once, about a world that makes no sense, in a speech that made only some.

It was interesting to watch lines that were meant to be funny fall flat. So much for the crafting of lines about smoked salmon and oil-company profits that were meant to lighten the mood. Obama, a master of poignance, can also be devastatingly funny in the appropriate setting. Maybe those days are behind us, things are too desperate on all fronts; yet I would give anything for a State of the Union address where the laughs aren't all coming from other people's tweets.

When it was over, we were treated and tweeted to a raft of analysis and opinion. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) gave the Republican response, filled with that quintessential fear of big government and worries about what financial fate awaits Ryan's children.

Then came the moment everyone had waited for, the tea party response delivered by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), with the aid of what appeared to be transparencies used in a middle-school social-studies class somewhere between the last Sputnik moment and the present one. So begins the age of endless responses and responses to responses. Do not adjust your sets. Do not attempt to change the channel.

"PEOPLE OF EARTH. . ." she began.

stueverh@washpost.com


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