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Get It in Writing: No More State of the Union Speeches

Updated on January 25, 2012
Almost every president since Woodrow Wilson has personally delivered the State of the Union message to Congress.
Almost every president since Woodrow Wilson has personally delivered the State of the Union message to Congress.

I was once an insatiable political junkie. There was not a press conference nor a roundtable discussion nor a committee hearing that I would miss, if I could help it. It was all so interesting. Beyond that it was just plain fun to root for good guys and jeer at villains. I suppose the problem started when the lefties and righties began looking and sounding alike. True, they still took political positions at variance with one another; but their posturing and delivery took on a monotonous quality, at once boorish and boring. I blamed 24 hour cable news, C-SPAN and late night hosts who thrust these people in our faces when we’re just channel-surfing for a few laughs. When we watch a play from the back row, the actors’ stage make-up helps us to perceive their expressions and visages, while we crane our necks to catch every movement. Yet were we to stand inches from them, the players might appear clownish and over-painted, even grotesque. This is what television has done to politics.

Perhaps it is just confirmation of the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt. But I think the problem exceeds that maxim. More accurately, the modes of familiarity – TV and internet – invite contemptible behavior. Nowhere is this more evident than the annual State of the Union Address. The president’s partisans increasingly resemble Beatles fans in their adulation, while the opposition members nearly break their own faces in scowls, trying to evince skepticism. By itself, such behavior might be tolerable. Unfortunately, the star of the show himself is also unrestrained. President Obama once used this event to tongue-lash what he knew would be a silent Supreme Court over a campaign finance decision. Having opened Pandora’s Box, Mr. Obama was himself subject to a verbal indictment of his honesty by a congressman at a subsequent joint-session spectacular. They were portrayed as ideological opponents, but they are in fact kindred spirits.

Furthermore, this president did not initiate these spectacles, which have been growing increasingly pompous and absurd over the last century. Chief Executives from both parties have sought to drape themselves in the rarefied and historic atmosphere of the House chamber. Other than seeking a declaration of war, I see little reason for such public forays down Pennsylvania Avenue. From Thomas Jefferson through William – The Big Guy – Howard Taft, presidents forwarded a written report on the state of the union, usually referred to as the “Annual Message”. These were hefty, substantive documents that delved deeply into the issues, as opposed to the usual string of slogans that now constitute a garden variety SOTU. In a typical example of his oversized and misplaced self-regard, Woodrow Wilson restored the personal appearance, so that the congressional rubes might bask in his eloquence and profundity. It’s been downhill ever since. Loving acknowledgement of first ladies is coupled with the invited average American – seated among the president’s guests – who gets highlighted for either accolades or pity.

And lest we forget the opposition response: Who will deliver it? Will he or she speak directly to the president’s remarks, or go off on a tangent? Is this person a future presidential candidate?

All of this is fodder for the countless journalists, pundits and academicians, all of whom re-hash, summarize and analyze the speech for all sorts of implications. SOTUs are a cottage industry, it seems. Still, are we any more enlightened than if the White House just published the SOTU in the newspaper? Maybe knowledge is not the goal any longer. Writing for the Washington Examiner, presidential scholar Gene Healy suggests that modern presidents do not aim for the brain:

Political scientist Elvin T. Lim finds that the modern SOTU has grown increasingly "compassionate and emotive," its content more "egalitarian and redistributive." References to the Constitution, quite common in our first century, have declined, replaced by "an increasing lack of humility" on the part of the president.

If this diagnosis is correct, the remedy should be clear: Take a cue from Jefferson and fed-ex the address to Congress. Granted, many of our esteemed legislators are loath to read lengthy documents, but this too might have its advantages. They might think twice before rushing to the nearest camera to level an opinion. Moreover, starving the SOTU beast may force future administrations to explain their programs rather than to simply label them as historic or prudent or fair or whatever. Humility begins when the stage make-up comes off.


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