Last week's coverage of President Bush reading his State of the Union Address from a TelePrompTer made for surprisingly good TV. It was a combination drama-reality-based show that was far better than the usual song-and-dance production staged for the benefit of the voting public.
It certainly wasn't the president's actual words that saved the show, nor that he made any of his usual gaffes. After all, he was reading from a TelePrompTer, not shooting from the hip and hitting his own foot in the process.
This go-round it was the buoyant emotions on display in a room now packed with more Democrats than Republicans that made for good imagery and suspense. There was the unforgettable image of Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi sitting perky and poised directly behind the president.
Vice President Dick Cheney, who by contrast looked as though he was having a Maalox moment, or needed a good stiff drink, slumped in his chair and looking grumpy.
Apparently I'm not the only one who thought this would be pretty good entertainment. At press time last week, Nielsen Media Research had just begun crunching initial tune-in ratings that showed combined viewing of the address on the four broadcast networks was up 14 percent compared with last year's presidential address. Together, ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC attracted 31.4 million viewers to the two-hour-long speech.
Fox led the pack, attracting 10.5 million viewers, an increase of 24 percent. NBC came in second with 7.5 million viewers, CBS had 7 million viewers and ABC trailed with its 6.3 million total viewers.
TV newsgathering organizations did their part, too, to make this annual snore more interesting to endure. NBC actually managed to get Campbell Brown at the soiree, the first time a journalist was ever allowed to mix it up with the legislators. And many of the camera angles were simply fabulous.
Among my favorite moments was when President Bush made a beeline for the doors the instant he finished reading. Then there was Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. You could tell she had a great night's sleep and a shot of Botox. Not a wrinkle on that forehead as she beamed throughout the two hours, almost making love to the cameras. Would love to know her TVQ scores for that performance.
By contrast, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., looked as though he didn't give a hoot about the whole thing. Cameras showed him not even looking at the president, let alone with respect. Instead his eyes were riveted on the actual copy of the speech in front of him. Well, if I were his age I wouldn't ham it up for the cameras either.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., looked like a fish out of water. When the president spoke about health savings accounts, Sen. Kerry stood up and applauded, and smiled, but not convincingly. In other words, a tepid TVQ score for the patrician from Beacon Hill.
Other great moments were when President Bush began his reading by first sucking up to Ms. Pelosi, congratulating her for being the first female Speaker of the House. He then threw a bone at the new Democratic majority, congratulating them too. Fun to see the thinly veiled sour-grapes demeanor.
But then he immediately jumped into his usual spiel, talking about how great the economy was with the creation of 7.2 million new jobs. He vowed to balance the federal budget and take a whack out of the deficit, but the Democrats in the crowd-judging from their somber faces-weren't buying that as he again vowed to send more troops to Iraq.
In defending his position, he spoke about the need to "take the fight to the enemy," and rattled off several examples of how his administration had staved off several terrorist attacks in the wake of 9/11. By that point, I started to nod off, thinking I was watching the next episode of "24."
But unlike "24," there was no cliffhanger here, just the everyday reality of the difficulties of keeping the country running and getting over bipartisan struggles. So there you have the drama and the reality elements of the new genre: State of the Union addresses.