John Derbyshire On Immigration Boilerplate, “Poetry,” And The Lies At Obama’s Stalinesque SOTU Extravaganza
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John Derbyshire: Immigration Boilerplate, “Poetry,” And Lies At Obama’s Stalinesque SOTU Extravaganza

In my 2009 book We Are Doomed (written pre-Obama, let it be noted) I described the State of the Union speech-ceremony as a “Stalinesque extravaganza.”

The Sergeant at Arms announces the President's arrival. The great man appears at last. In his progress through the chamber, legislators jostle and maneuver to catch his eye and receive the favor of a presidential greeting.

On the podium at last, the President offers up preposterously grandiose assurances of protection, provision, and moral guidance from his government, these declarations of benevolent omnipotence punctuated by standing ovations and cheers from legislators of his own party, and often from the others too, after every declarative clause.

As the years click by, each one bearing its SOTU speech, I more and more think that my descriptor was unkind to Stalin. The drilled adulation on display in the Senate Chamber is now at a level that would have brought a blush of embarrassment to the sallow, pock-marked cheeks of the vozhd.

Someone has to report this foolishness, though, and I drew the ticket at the New Year’s tombola. (Though a colleague intimate with the mysteries of “tweeting” generously agreed to share the burden.)

Well, at least I now have a kindred spirit. Fox News Channel’s panel of commentators on this year’s speech included George Will. Neither I nor my colleagues hold Will in very high esteem as an immigration patriot, but politics is full of surprises.

Asked what he thought of the SOTU ceremonies in general, Will replied: “How ghastly they are.” You may picture me leaping up from my chair and pumping my fist in the air. Yess!

Will has also opined that: “No [Supreme Court] justices or senior military officers should stoop to being props at these puerile spectacles.” I entirely agree. The sooner we revert to the 19th-century mode of an annual message delivered in writing to Congress, the better it will be for the Republic.

Saint Luke tells us that joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. Let’s hope that George Will is on the path to full repentance.

That said, did this year’s speech have any content worth noting?

I can’t say I thought so. The pre-speech commentary from TV talking heads was all of low expectations, for reasons difficult to gainsay. The President’s signature policy initiative is losing altitude fast; his diplomacy is merely cosmetic; a once-orderly budget process has degenerated into a marathon stumble from crisis to crisis; federal debt is disgracefully high, labor force participation disgracefully low; the middle class is hollowing out; five years of war in Afghanistan have achieved nothing at a cost of 1,648 dead Americans; and Obama’s former Defense Secretary has scoffed at his military leadership.

Obama put the best face he could on it all. His delivery was in fact more spirited than it had any right to be. This was slightly worrying, raising the possibility that the President may be delusional.

I think the issue is more one of detachment. Obama knows things aren’t good for him, but doesn’t care much. He does care about giving a good resounding speech.

The “prose” was of course padded out with even more than the usual amount of “poetry”: “ladders of opportunity,” “let’s make this a year of action,” “our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress,” and so on .

Some other parts of the speech—more than usual, I though—was boilerplate, of the kind we get every year, concerning problems about which nothing is ever done, and about which, by this point, nobody expects ever to see anything done: “our tax code is riddled with wasteful, complicated loopholes,” “I will act on my own to slash bureaucracy” (will you, Mr. President? will you?), “American diplomacy is supporting Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in difficult but necessary talks to end the conflict there…” Uh-huh.

There were a few bare-faced lies—about the usual number, I thought. “Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education.” Research shows no such thing. The tiny gains pre-schoolers get from Head Start have disappeared by Third Grade. “As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.” Iran’s Foreign Minister begs to differ.

Boilerplate, “poetry,” and lies came together in the single brief paragraph on immigration. My comments are in brackets here:

Finally, if we are serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders [cheap labor!], labor leaders [for vote fodder], faith leaders [for seats on pews, and for money], and law enforcement [though not immigration law enforcement]—and fix our broken immigration system [who broke it, by not enforcing the people’s laws?] Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted [and reacted].

I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same. Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy [but also, obviously, our population: the phrase “per capita” mean anything?] and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades [and the CBO says it will depress American wages for 20 years: “Average wages would be slightly lower than under current law through 2024”].

And for good reason: when people come here to fulfill their dreams [am I the only American who reaches for the barf bag when a politician talks about “dreams”? shouldn’t maybe some of these talented foreigners “dream” about improving their own countries?]—to study, invent, and contribute to our culture [in so many vibrant and colorful ways]—they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everyone. So let’s get immigration reform done this year.

The GOP counter-SOTU response was given by a chirpy and rather attractive lady Representative I had never heard of from Washington State. She was all “poetry,” with nothing at all to say about policy.

She was at pains to tell us that she, like Sarah Palin (and, come to think of it, George Will), is parent of a Down Syndrome child. I applaud the largeness of heart and spirit that she and they bring to such a trial, but… why did we need to know this? Is it some kind of prerequisite for prominent Republican women now? Couldn’t we have had just a little bit of policy?

With absolutely no offense to the Congresslady, who is obviously a very nice person, I would rather have heard Jeff Sessions.

My mood may change to broader policy concerns as memories of tonight fade, but at the moment I am ready to offer my vote—on my knees, with supplementary gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh—to any candidate, of any party, irrespective (as they say) of age, race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, disability, or veteran status who will convincingly promise to revert to a written State of the Union message to Congress.

Please, please, for pity’s sake, spare us another Stalinesque extravaganza.

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His most recent book, published by com is  FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle).His writings are archived at

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