State of the State Speechmaking Lets Governors Soar

 

It's a governor's chance to be the Great Communicator, to bedazzle rapt lawmakers and constituents with stirring, inspirational speechmaking. At least, that's how state of the state speeches probably play out in every governor's head. None of them deliberately sets out to deliver dry, endless policy recitations that sometimes make `state of the state' synonymous with SOS.

If anything, there's a temptation to "sound like a speaker at a testimonial dinner," South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, (D), said in his maiden state of the state speech last month. "Lots of grandiose rhetoric, patting yourself on the back, praise for all that's been accomplished...with maybe a hint or two about the future.

"Not here," Hodges said, displaying a classic bit of misdirection. "Not tonight."

South Carolina's chief executive went on to focus heavily on education, a theme common to practically every state of the state address around the country.

Some governors, like Arizona Republican Jane Hull, used the speech to talk loudly and carry a big stick. "Like the sign at Sheriff Joe's jail, there will always be a vacancy for those who threaten our lives or destroy our property," she warned starkly. "And I will continue to enforce our death penalty, so killers can't kill again."

Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, who wants to overhaul his state's health-care system, couldn't resist giving health-care lobbyists some bully-pulpit medicine. "Don't you believe them," Democrat Barnes said sarcastically. "You know they're not telling the truth. Beware of their eel-skinned briefcases and alligator shoes."

On the whole, governors perform their state-of-the-state duties with aplomb, according to Larry Welch, a trainer for Toastmasters International. "Let's face it, those things are prepared by professionals, and they know what people respond to," says Welch.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush cribbed a line or two from Dad, former president George Bush. Bush, the early favorite for next year's Republican presidential nomination, spoke of "a society should not be measured only in the wealth it accumulates or the technology it develops. The strength of a society should be measured in the values its people share."

In his presidential inaugural address, the elder Bush said: "My friends, we are not the sum of our possessions. They are not the measure of our lives."

Sports cliches are state-of-the-state staples, as Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland demonstrated, telling his General Assembly that "together, we scored a touchdown!"referring to a special session of the legislature that helped pave the way for the pro-football New England Patriots to move to Hartford from Foxboro, Mass.

Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, a four-term Republican, took the sports theme a step further. "When CBS football analyst and former New England Patriots running back Craig James said that the '98 Badger (football) team was the worst team ever to represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl I took it very personally," Thompson observed. "Let's take a moment to look at the record."

Which Thompson did, aided by an elaborate video display.

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, opted for the mantra approach. "Iowa is great because Iowa is good," Vilsack said. "Let me repeat that Iowa is great because Iowa is good."

Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, used his state of the state to unveil a tough policy choice. "Tonight, I'll outline a comprehensive, yet admittedly politically risky proposal," said Democrat Knowles, referring to a state income tax that he is seeking to meet a $1 billion budget shortfall.

The shortfall is due to a decline in Alaska's oil and gas revenues because of the Asian financial crisis.

Montana Gov. Marc Racicot may have had the best state-of-the-state backdrop. His address took place in an "awe-inspiring chamber, amid these humbling mountains, with their vast, snow-covered forests and, sprawling beyond, hundreds of miles of productive plains peopled by the best neighbors on the planet."

Montana's Republican governor coupled his soaring rhetoric with words of praise for what his state has accomplished in dealing with budget problems and reducing its welfare rolls.

 
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