Tuesday, January 23, 2007

SOTU

Ed Brayton pretty much captures my view with regard to State of the Union addresses:

Tonight is the state of the union address, one of the dumbest and most ridiculous rituals of modern political discourse. It doesn't matter who is in the White House, this event is so mind-bogglingly inane that I can't imagine why anyone would willingly subject themselves to it. The President will deliver a 20 minute speech full of idiotic platitudes that will take an hour to deliver because the audience of legislators will interrupt him 1457 times to mindlessly applaud some absurd proposal that neither he nor they has the slightest intention of actually making a reality. By the end of the speech, the president will have promised to put a chicken in every pot as well as to heal the sick, comfort the downtrodden, free the oppressed, win the war, bring peace to the world, paint the house and do the laundry. No one in the audience actually believes any of that, of course, which makes the spectacle afterward, wherein a couple dozen talking heads gather together on the cable news shows to parse every frame of the speech like the Zapruder film, all the more ridiculous. The whole event couldn't be any more pointless if the president stood at the podium and read from My Pet Goat like he does to schoolchildren; that is precisely the level of discourse in the speech anyway and deserves to be taken about as seriously.


The sad fact is that it wasn't always this way. For a post here I once went over all the State of the Union addresses I could find; and I noticed a serious decline in their quality throughout the twentieth century. The original culprit is not hard to find. One of the things Jefferson brought to the Presidency was a refusal to dally in anything that looked like the posturing of a despot so instead of delivering the State of the Union in person as his predecessors did, he simply sent the copy over to have the clerk read it. (He was consciously trying to be the opposite of Washington, who rode in state to his annual addresses.) That was the way they were done for a very long time. The President who broke with the Jeffersonian tradition was Woodrow Wilson, and he was attacked for it in Jeffersonian terms: he was, his critics said, reviving the absurd ritualism of petty dictators. It stuck, however. Perhaps it would not have been so bad; but radio came along ten years later with Calvin Coolidge. Now it was not just a speech for legislators but for everyone. Well, OK, that's fine, but then TV enters the picture with Truman. Now it not only has to be a speech for everyone, it has to be a spectacle for everyone. Johnson, cunning and egoistic in this as in everything, saw the potential, moved it to primetime so everyone could see him, and from then on the annual address is simply a political advertisement. But while the point of the whole thing collapses with Johnson, it gets worse as time goes on; because for a while there's at least an effort to make it not look like an advertisement, although this effort becomes weaker as time goes on. With Reagan we get the stupid informationless weasel words, "The State of the Union is strong", which have been repeated in some variation over and over again since. But it isn't for nothing that he's called the Great Communicator, whatever else may be said for him. He's just politicking, but he has the decency to do it in a casual, genial style that doesn't seem much like an advertisement; he's parading, but he affably doesn't highlight the fact. Sort of like Coolidge Lite -- tastes great, but a lot less filling. And he boasts and he lies, but he does it carefully enough, and with enough entertainment, that it feels more like stretching the truth. But the Bushes and Clinton have all been shameless in this regard, and I don't think there's any other way to put it.

What people need to do is demand the return of the Jeffersonian tradition. Throw away the spectacle, and also demand that the President to do what he is constitutionally required to do: inform Congress of the actual state of the Union. I am not kidding when I say the failure of Presidents to do this is a matter of serious concern; the SOTU is a symptom of our constitutional health, and that is what distinguishes our leaders from the petty despots that Jefferson and Wilson's critics were so worried about it. And it has become an alarming symptom.

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