Someone else should have watched a movie instead.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Best State of the Union Analysis: Don't Watch

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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Last night I finally caught up with “Lucy,” the much-talked-about sci-fi thriller from Luc Besson. I’m a bit of a Besson fan, but I must say that I found the film, to borrow from my eighth-grade gym teacher, not as good as it would have been if it had been a whole lot better than it was. Still, I’m glad I watched. This was part of my strategy for avoiding President Barack Obama’s State of the Union message -- a strategy that also included further study of my favorite long book from last year, Martin Meredith’s absolutely fascinating “The Fortunes of Africa.”

Now, as to the reason I didn’t tune in the speech instead. I have nothing at all against President Obama. The problem isn’t the players but the game. It’s politics that makes me tired. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. There is something terribly depressing about politics and the endless analysis of politics, both of which are characterized these days by pretty much the same people, saying pretty much the same things. That devoted partisans on one side or another love the constant theater, I understand. For the rest of us, the mess gets worse with each passing year.

There’s a very nice inside joke during the third season of “Breaking Bad.” Hank Schrader, the brother-in-law of protagonist Walter White, has been shot and seriously wounded by a pair of killers sent by a drug cartel. While the family waits anxiously in a room at the hospital, a doctor comes in to update them on Hank’s condition. The doctor pronounces a few vaguely reassuring lines, and is never seen in the show again. He’s not an important character.

Plainly the writers meant to parallel a similar scene in the first episode of the second season of “The West Wing.” President Josiah Bartlet has been shot and seriously wounded by a white supremacist. While family and staff wait anxiously in a room at the hospital, a doctor comes in to update them on his condition. The doctor pronounces a few vaguely reassuring lines, and is never seen in the show again. He’s not an important character.

Here’s the inside joke: The two doctors in the two separate shows made in two separate eras of television and set in two separate parts of the country are played by the same actor, Michael Bryan French. A pretty clever piece of casting if what you’re presenting is entertainment.

Politics shouldn’t be entertainment. Yet year after year, the same commentators show up to say pretty much the same thing. There are people whose job it is to laud the president, and they laud him. There are people whose job it is to dump on the president, and they dump on him. What the two groups have in common is that they contribute essentially nothing to the debate.

Don’t get me wrong. Policy is important. It matters enormously what governments do and don’t do. But so much of what passes for policy analysis is partisan carping: If it’s our side’s idea, it’s great and it’s working; if it’s your side’s idea, it’s terrible and it’s a flop.

Committed partisans presumably enjoy day-by-day, blow-by-blow commentaries. But as time goes on, there’s less and less reason for the rest of us to pay attention. And don’t go blaming voter apathy. It’s the parties and their partisans who are driving moderates out of politics.

That’s why these days, for those of us not emotionally invested in one side or the other, time is often better spent watching a silly movie or reading a wonderful book.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net