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April 23, 2014

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The State of the Speeches

Let’s discuss State of the State speeches.

No, wait! Don’t go away! We can start with Chris Christie.

This week, Christie gave his annual address, and everybody was wondering what he’d say about the traffic-jam scandal. It is possible the crowd of cameras set some kind of State of the State record.

“Mistakes were clearly made,” Christie told the New Jersey Legislature. It’s been more than a week, and he still hasn’t managed to get himself out of the passive voice.

Then the governor quickly switched gears and announced that “the state of our state is good.” He dropped the George Washington Bridge brouhaha and began calling for more spending on education and economic development, coupled with lower taxes. Most of the cameras quickly switched off.

Made sense. Unless you live in New Jersey, there’s a limit to how much you need to know about the governor’s call for reform of the state interest arbitration award system. But the policy part of the speech didn’t even get Christie’s constituents talking. Like almost every State of the State speech by every governor every year, it was exceedingly boring. This is their big moment, yet we pay more attention to the FBI warning on a DVD.

Why can’t they do it better? I have been to way more of these events than the average American, and the only one I remember at all is an irritable Mario Cuomo’s address to the New York Legislature in 1993, when he referred to the applauding lawmakers as “monkeys.”

Nothing that interesting has happened this year. In Virginia, the outgoing governor, Bob McDonnell, who’s facing a possible indictment for accepting loans and gifts from a maker of dietary supplements, did tell the Legislature that he was “not perfect.” But, like Christie, McDonnell swiftly veered upbeat. “He had 12 exclamation points. Up from eight last year,” reported Daniel Luzer, the news editor of Governing magazine, which has a website that’s the absolute Rosetta Stone of State of the State information.

The governor of Alabama devoted much time to assaulting Obamacare, along with calls for controlling taxes, economic development and better education. In Idaho, Gov. Butch Otter asked for a new wolf control panel. Plus he discussed lower taxes, economic development and education. Also, Otter patted himself on the back for appointing the first woman to the Idaho Potato Commission.

The ritual will go on for weeks, and, in general, the speeches will all sink into oblivion as soon as they’re delivered. The reason they’re ignored — and why, to be honest, citizens don’t even focus much on the State of the Union — is that they’re generally about everything and, therefore, nothing. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York not only called for lower taxes, economic development and education but also affordable housing, a medical marijuana plan, women’s equality, a crackdown on drunken driving, a crackdown on texting while driving, “a second round of the yogurt summit,” ethics reform and a raft race upstate featuring teams from the state Legislature.

The one exception this year was Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont, who used his entire speech last week to talk about his state’s terrible problem with heroin addiction.

“Generally I do what everybody does — hit 250 points that nobody remembers after you leave,” Shumlin said in a phone interview.

Opiate addiction is the curse of rural America and a particularly huge problem in the Northeast. In Vermont, it accounts for nearly 80 percent of the population in the state prisons. Still, it’s not the kind of issue governors like to dwell on in what is supposed to be their most high-profile moment of the year.

“To be honest, what I really wanted was to have a conversation with Vermont,” Shumlin said.

And it worked. He used his speech to call for more drug treatment, as well as quick intervention programs for newly arrested addicts. It got national attention, and the response from most residents, Shumlin says, has been resounding. This year, Vermonters may actually know what their governor talked about in the State of the State address. (On the negative side, one Republican state representative told The New York Times’ Katharine Seelye that the governor should have also talked about the pressing problem of — yes! — Obamacare.)

Why can’t other chief executives pick one topic like Shumlin did? Because the State of the State speeches are really about the people who give them, not the tasks at hand. They’re about a governor listing the many, many wonderful things he or she thinks are good ideas. They’re campaign ads delivered from a podium.

It’s really a waste. And it’s not as if there aren’t other opportunities to make points. Shumlin used his budget address this week to call for a big boost in financing for drug treatment — plus the need to control taxes, expand economic development and improve education.

If you clapped your hands for every initiative, he said dryly, “they’d be bleeding.”

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.

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