American astronomer J. Allen Hynek shuffled off this mortal coil in 1986, but I wonder what he would have made of this week’s State of the Union address, which as far as I can tell vindicated a good bit of his research. Hynek tried to codify relative strangeness by outlining differences between “close encounters” of the first, second, and third kinds. His 1972 book explaining that classification impressed filmmaker Steven Spielberg back in the day, and could be understood as an ascending scale of oddity, depending on whether you saw an unidentified flying object, noticed that the UFO had an effect on your environment, or swore on top of the two previous impressions that an inexplicably animated creature of some sort was also present.
Hynek’s taxonomy for encounters with extraterrestrial life makes as good an interpretive key for what happened on Capitol Hill earlier this week as any other. Consider this: When Scott Pelley of CBS News summarized President Obama’s forthcoming year as “He will work with Congress where he can, and bypass Congress where he has to” before asking CBS colleague Bob Schieffer how he (Bob) “thought that would play” among Republicans, Bob all but copped to extraterrestrial origins. Speaking of President Obama, Schieffer solemnly assured viewers that “He has not done that [bypassed Congress] in the past; He has used executive power sparingly.” This might mean that Schieffer, a veteran journalist, is unfamiliar with the definition of “sparingly,” but it seems more likely that off-Earth newscasts told him nothing about the president’s cavalier treatment of everything from recess appointments to enforcement of immigration law to provisions of the Affordable Care Act. President Obama’s once-impressive collection of shadow cabinet “czars” was also created by Executive Order, but nobody on the CBS News team covering the SOTU mentioned that, or raised a powdered eyebrow when President Obama said, “We’re working to redesign high schools.” This country’s founding fathers never played that kind of smallball, and how by the way would a great American like Davy Crockett have “kilt him a bear when he was only three” if his every boyish instinct — however apocryphal — had been squelched by federally mandated “Early Childhood Education”? Where is the Weekly World News when we need it? Start looking for tentacles!
Bob Schieffer was not the only journalist to let the mask slip. Norah O’Donnell, also of CBS, gazed at what Kevin Williamson of National Review aptly and acidly called the “crypto-imperial display” before her, but only managed to sound like an anthropologist studying an unfamiliar species: “I’m struck by how gray his hair is,” she said of the president while he was awkwardly schmoozing lawmakers for TV cameras. Sideline reporters at NFL games offer better analysis, but I’m willing to make allowances for O’Donnell’s evident surprise if, for example, stress affects hair differently on the moons of Jupiter.
An increasing number of (space) aliens in the White House press corps might explain President Obama’s remarkable petulance. On the one hand, our president understands that many journalists are de facto members of his Praetorian Guard, eager to praise him even for accomplishments that aren’t his (“You did build that, Barack. Indeed you did!”). On the other hand, the president also knows that the press poses a threat to his ambitions if it turns on him, and so he is a student of the party line, as shown by some of the throwaway lines in his speech: “Carbon pollution causes climate change!” he shouted, just the way you and I might if we had to defend an absurd thesis in front of powerful visitors from another civilization. In the same address, we also heard, “Let’s make this a year of action!” Subtext: If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you don’t make interstellar trips sitting on the couch or, uh, playing golf. But in confused contrast to making 2014 a “year of action” (because close encounters with aliens confuse things), we also heard Barack Obama say, “I have imposed prudent limits on the use of drones.” That was almost as funny as putting Joe Biden, the guy who was supposed to lend foreign policy expertise to this administration, in charge of “across-the-board reform of American job training programs.” Only an alien could convince a smart guy like Barack Obama that Vice-President Biden deserved a bigger portfolio, but then the whole speech sounded like flop sweat in front of an academic review board.
Despite the strong field, my favorite State of the Union straw man was “There are millions of Americans outside of Washington who are tired of stale political arguments.” Subtext: Let’s freshen the wilted lettuce of the U.S. Constitution by reviving it with a sprinkle of cold-water socialism. As for those Americans who’ve never even had a political argument — Our president is fine with them, as long as they do as they’re told. I do not think it was a coincidence that “journalist” Kent Brockman (not with CBS) was the first to utter the alarmingly earnest witticism, “I for one welcome our new [fill in the blank] overlords.”