The Fate of the Union Address

Just like clockwork, the president gave his State of the Union Address last night. The initial, constitutional requirement was a report. In the old days, it was an informal account given to the congress by the president in written form. Somewhere along the way, someone thought it would be a good idea to make a big deal of it.

Now there’s a lot of pomp and circumstance as the prez rides to Capitol Hill and presents it orally. Instead of a few pages that could be read at someone’s leisure, it’s now upwards of an hour and a half of politics presented for us all on national TV.

Every year I tell myself I’m not going to watch. Yet every year, for one reason or another, I still tune in. I’m always glad I did. The reason I’m glad is because of what follows.

Immediately following the speech, the political pundits begin to rate it, tear it apart, and moderate every sentence contained therein. If you flip from channel to channel, the stark contrast is nothing short of unbelievable. As I hear these guys and gals pontificate on the president’s verbiage, I’m often flabbergasted.

Which Version Did You Hear?

The reason for my amazement is the varied and multitudinous interpretations given. I’ve just intently watched and listened to every word pouring from our chief executive’s mouth, and now I’m hearing an entirely different version of what I thought I just saw. To make matters worse, each channel (and each pundit) seems to have heard an entirely different speech than the previous commentators.

Paul Simon once wrote a song entitled “The Boxer.” One of the lines in it has always stood out to me. It explains the phenomenon that follows the State of the Union Address each year. The line goes, “Still, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” That’s pretty much describes it.

As a tiny addendum to Simon’s axiom, I saw a brief news clip early in the week (a day or two prior to the State of the Union). A film journalist was doing person-in-the-street interviews and asking college students what they though of the State of the Union Address this year.

“I was embarassed for these people.”

Mind you, this was before the speech was given. The answers were incredible. Everyone claimed to have heard it and had an opinion on it. Most hated it. I was embarrassed for these people.

I guess this is what it’s come to. It doesn’t matter what you say (or, apparently, if you say anything). People are going to hear what they want to hear. If this was merely a once a year occurrence, that would be bad enough. The sad thing is, it happens all the time. I’ve seen it happen in my own life.

Maybe this is why the Lord had Isaiah say to his people, “Be ever hearing, but never understanding.” (Isaiah 6:9) If people are determined to put their own spin on someone else’s words, even God doesn’t have the stomach for it.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel, in Great Falls, VA.]

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