It is called the “State of the Union” address but that might as well be the “Shame of the Union.” The President of the United States, who is employed at the pleasure of the people, descending on the Capitol during prime time to address both houses of Congress, the justices of the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs, Cabinet members, and assorted others of rank and name in Washington. Television is there, of course, with breathless coverage and commentary. The President gives a truly tedious talk that is a laundry list, more or less, of all the wonderful things that he and his administration have done for the “American people.” Applause lines are built into the speech, like commercial breaks in a TV sitcom, and at each of these, members of the President’s party spring to their feet and applaud like trained canines. Members of the opposition, meanwhile, sit grumpily on their hands.
The thing goes on almost as long as those stem-winders Castro used to deliver in order remind his captive people of just how good they had it. And at the conclusion of the President’s speech, the television talking heads will be there to “break down” the whole thing, like Tony Romo explaining why the defense played zone instead of man.
While the President is working the room and shaking hands, you are left to marvel on how a government that is doing so many things, so magnificently, and with unlimited resources, can’t seem operate a functioning mass transit system in the nation’s capital.
The SOTU (as it is called) is not, of course, much more than an exercise in self-celebration for the political class, the members of which have absolutely no shame. As for those people at home, following on television… well, maybe some of them do believe the President when he tells them that the Department of Agriculture is doing a fine job for farmers and the DEA is on the way to victory in the War on Drugs and the government’s finances are sound despite the fact that we will soon be spending more in interest on the national debt than we do on defense.
And so, absurdly, on.
There is, of course, no requirement that you watch (not yet, anyway) and anyone who is truly interested in the substance of the speech — assuming it has any — can read about it the next morning or go on line and get the full transcript, thus being spared the absurdly sycophantish applause.
The thing is, in short, theater designed by big government people to celebrate themselves and lord it over the citizenry. The Constitution obliges the President to, from time to time “… give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
For most of the Republic’s history, a letter, now and then, was considered sufficient. Lincoln was, unsurprisingly, good with this form. He was long on facts and detail but because he was Lincoln, delivered in language that was artful and occasionally, more than that. (“It is hoped that with the return of domestic peace the country will be able to resume with energy and advantage its former high career of commerce and civilization.”)
What was good enough for Abraham Lincoln was not, however, good enough for Woodrow Wilson who went to the Capitol to deliver the speech in person as though he were addressing subordinates, pupils or, even, subjects.
One more nail hammered, by Wilson, into the coffin of representative government.
So Presidents became accustomed to delivering the SOTU as though from on high. Telling members of Congress just how it was going to be. And, then, television came along and the SOTU became a blended exercise in show business and politics designed to gin up emotion rather than convey information.
Now, in the year of our government shutdown, it appears that television will have to find something else to do. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has written a letter to President Trump in which she requests that he either reschedule or deliver the report in writing. She does this, she writes, “sadly.”
Her letter is being treated, in some quarters, as a brilliant stroke. Ms. Pelosi strikes and President Trump regrets. How better to hit him where it hurts than to withhold from him a couple of hours of free television.
And, who knows? Maybe being denied a chance to address a joint session in prime time will deeply wound the President. He plainly enjoys the exposure.
For the rest of us, though, it is a blessing. One that returns to the nation a little of the self-respect it has lost since the advent of the imperial presidency and the hybridizing of politics and show business.