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A Very Brief Guide to Interesting Moments in State of the Union History

Sometimes the Weirdness Gods smile on Capitol Hill.

by Mike Pearl
Jan 12 2016, 10:24pm

Photo via The While House/Wikimedia Commons

The Sergeant at Arms announces the president. Photo via White House/Wikimedia Commons

Tonight, President Obama will give the last State of the Union Address of his administration. That probably suits him, because State of the Union speeches are, by their nature, a grueling waste of time. But still, every January, a person in a suit who half the country invariably hates, walks into a room where half the audience also hates him, and says a bunch of political niceties, along with a few policy ideas that usually don't pan out.

There's not really much of any substance that a president can say in this situation. After all, the premise of the speech is almost always "the state of the union is strong," and in most circumstances, if everything is fine, you stop talking. Also, unlike a campaign speech, where politicians can use soaring pseudo-truths to work up a crowd, presidents give State of the Union speeches while their political enemies are glaring right at them, so they have to tone their rhetoric down to avoid prompting some kind of old man uproar that will just embarrass everybody. And that makes these speeches super boring.

But every once in a while, the Weirdness Gods smile on Capitol Hill, and something important or entertaining happens during the annual presidential address. What follows is a brief list of those rare instances.

Times When People Fell Asleep

One of the few times it's actually funny to watch people sleep is when those people are incredibly powerful, and attending an important event surrounded by other powerful people, and still manage to nod off like kids in church. It seems to happen to the people in the audience who might actually have an interesting reaction to whatever the president is saying at the time, like for instance, Senator John McCain, who fell asleep just as George W. Bush was talking about war:

...Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was in the middle of a disco nap when Obama happened to mention gay marriage in last year's State of the Union.

Ginsburg later confirmed that she nodded off because she was drunk. She also fell asleep in 2011, but hasn't confirmed that it was because she was drunk. However, the time before that, when she fell asleep in 2010, yep, she was drunk.

In 2011, there was also this lady sitting behind then-Congressman Anthony Weiner, whose identity no one can seem to figure out:


Times When Presidents Tried to Be Funny and it Didn't Go Well

Against better judgment, presidents sometimes try to employ a thing we real, non-lizard people like to call hu-mor. This is not wise.

In his first major address after puking on the Japanese prime minister in 1992, George H. W. Bush busted out a pretty weird—but arguably pretty solid—joke about it at the State of the Union, thus kicking off his speech while everyone pictured him unconscious with puke dripping from his face. (It's about a minute into the video below.)

But the worst dad joke bomb in recent SOTU history came from Obama. He was trying to say something about regulation and farmers and milk, and somehow this burbled out:

But Obama sort of redeemed himself last year when he zinged some Republicans for clapping at a weird time.

Times When Speeches Looked Really Bad in Retrospect

In 1974, Richard Nixon had been dogged by this annoying news story about a break-in at the Watergate Hotel. At the State of the Union that year, Nixon declared, "One year of Watergate is enough!" If I recall correctly, that was that: the press backed off, and we never heard about "Watergate" again.

Similarly, in 2002, George W. Bush gave the speech in which he debuted the term "Axis of Evil." It was a rousing piece of oratory about how the US was winning the War on Terror, and lots of people came away from it feeling like another invasion of Iraq was a super cool idea.

The following year, Bush further built the case for his Iraq War by saying these 16 words:

...which, if you don't want to use the word "lie," was a total falsehood based on bad intel.

Times When Other Weird Shit Happened

In 2014, this happened to Vice President Joe Biden's face:

I'm fairly certain that one of Biden's friends popped up in the front row with a pizza, and then revealed there was also Pepsi. And then Biden remembered that he couldn't have any pizza or Pepsi because he was sitting behind the president.

One of the better moments in the recent history of State of the Union addresses actually came just after the speech, during Marco Rubio's rebuttal to Obama's 2013 address. In an apparent effort to prove he wasn't a lizard in a skin suit, he picked a weird moment to drink that clear stuff humans need to stay alive.

Still, the odds are very much against anything remotely interesting happening during tonight's address, but you should watch anyway, just in case. Actual kernels of interestingness in these telecasts are like rare and beautiful butterflies—you can collect them all like I have here, but nothing beats a spontaneous sighting in their natural habitat.

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