State of the Union address dominates dial

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Primetime gives way to pomp, protocol and pageantry as President George W. Bush delivers the State of the Union address (8 p.m., ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, UPN, PBS, CNN, Fox News) to a joint session of Congress.

This marks the first State of the Union since 1996 delivered by a president seeking re-election. Several of the president's Democrat challengers should be in the audience, so look for reaction shots from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.), as well as from Reps. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).

Given the number of issues to be covered and the laundry list of proposals presented, these speeches are rarely notable for their eloquence. Of late, the most remarkable thing about them has been their duration. In 1995, many squirmed in their seats when President Clinton's peroration hit the 90-minute mark with no sign of stopping. In 2001, President Bush followed up a fairly brief inaugural address with a similarly succinct State of the Union, but since then his speeches have run longer.

For political junkies, there's always the fun of reading the body language of members of Congress and counting the number of times his proposals are greeted with unanimous, or merely partisan, applause. President Reagan began the tradition of saluting a particular hero or heroine in the gallery, often given a seat of honor next to the first lady. These gestures have little or nothing to do with the State of the Union, but they're often good political theater. President Clinton made skillful use of this crowd-pleasing device. Look for President Bush to do the same.

The networks will follow the address with some instant punditry and allow time for a response from Sen. Tom Daschle (D-N.D.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Tonight's other highlights

Late night

Ashton Kutcher and Paula Abdul appear on "Late Show with David Letterman" (10:35 p.m., CBS) ... Jay Leno hosts Noah Wyle and Toby Keith on "The Tonight Show" (10:35 p.m., NBC).