One of the reasons to study the past is to see the present more clearly. By figuratively visiting other times and places, we become more aware of aspects of our place and time that we would otherwise take for granted. Last night’s State of the Union address is a case in point.
When the framers of the Constitution crafted our blueprint of government in 1787, they stipulated that the president “shall 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” (Art. II, sect. 3). From this requirement the custom evolved that the executive would formally address the Congress at least once annually (perhaps in keeping with the Constitutional requirement in Art. I that the Congress “assemble at least once” annually). For decades this address was typically called the president’s “annual message,” and now it is more commonly known as the “State of the Union Address.”
The president’s State of the Union Address (or SOTU by POTUS for those who think acronyms are cool) is now an enormously significant media event with huge political ramifications for both parties. As the nation watches (to the degree that we watch), the president and his party enjoy millions of dollars’ worth of national publicity. The party’s leader pitches his policy proposals, while the camera pans to congressmen looking variously engaged or bored, gleeful or glum, enthusiastic or resentful.
From first to last, this is a media-driven event. In advance of the spectacle you could tune in to any number of pre-game shows, not the least of which was sponsored by the president himself. Virtual visitors to the White House website were first reminded that “Together, we can make change happen.” You could then watch the SOTU “pre-show,” view video of everyday Americans as they received phone calls inviting them to sit with the First Lady in her box during the speech, and even read synopses of what the president planned to share regarding the economy, climate, health care, foreign policy and social progress. After the hour-plus speech, a smorgasbord of talking heads told us what the president said, why he said it, and what they thought of it, while pollsters scurried to ask us (or at least a few hundred of us) if we thought what the talking heads thought we should think.
It has not always been this way. The Constitution doesn’t require the president to give a speech to the Congress, only to give it information and make recommendations. And for most of American history, U. S. presidents have opted to send a formal written report via messenger and skip the personal oration. Overall, since 1789 that’s been the case for nearly two thirds of these messages–only 82 out of 226 (about 36%) have come as speeches.
Our first two presidents, Federalists George Washington and John Adams, appeared personally before Congress to satisfy their Constitutional duty. But between 1801 and 1913, not a single U. S. president followed their example. In 1801, Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson decided to send his message in writing to Congress on the grounds that the practice of lecturing Congress in person was undemocratic. In England it was customary for the king to speak periodically “from on high” to the Parliament, and Jefferson–who hated public speaking anyway–insisted that a truly republican government should not be perpetuating the trappings of monarchy.
The precedent held for a long time. Each of the next twenty presidents followed Jefferson’s lead. Even Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent 1862 message in the midst of the Civil War–calling the North to preserve the United States as the “last best hope of earth”– was sent by a courier and read by a congressional clerk. It was not until 1913 that Woodrow Wilson would defy what was by then a hallowed tradition and appear before Congress in person. And when he did so, headlines in the New York Times declared “SENATORS FROWN ON WILSON’S VISIT: Reading is Compared to Speech from Throne.”
From this point, the pattern began to shift slowly but surely toward personal appearances. In the process, what had once been a rather perfunctory summary of the work of the various executive departments gradually became a major political statement on behalf of the president and his party. More important, the originally intended audience of the address–the U. S. Congress–was replaced by the American public.
The growing importance of radio and television was central to the latter transformation. The first president to deliver his address to a national radio audience was, ironically, “Silent” Cal Coolidge, who belied his nickname with a 22-page long speech in 1923. In 1947 television got into the act, broadcasting Harry Truman’s address to the fraction of American households who had invested in that dubious technology. The TV audience grew steadily thereafter, so that by the mid-1960s Lyndon Johnson decided to shift his speech from the traditional afternoon setting to the early evening in order to garner a much larger “prime-time” audience.
Which brings us, more or less, to the highly choreographed, vacuous public spectacle that the State of the Union address has long since become. True to form, last night’s was a relentless rhythm of presidential statement and partisan response: Democratic ovations, Republican groans, Joe Biden repeatedly rising to his feet, Paul Ryan glued to his chair. If the Washington Post transcript of the event is accurate, President Obama was interrupted by applause seventy-one times during his fifty-nine-minute speech.
In sum, the event is now much like our quadrennial party conventions. Photo-ops, posturing, and platitudes abound, but almost no real work gets accomplished–at least not the kind of work that the framers of the Constitution envisioned. The only real suspense in the event came when, for a moment, it looked as if a drowsy Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was going to fall from her chair. I could sympathize.
Does anyone else find this tedious?