The State Of The Union: In Need Of Repair?
On a bitter January night—both in temperature and temperament—George Washington presented to our newly-formed Congress his State of the Union Address. It would be the first that the chamber would hear, and the first that that the old war hero and new president would deliver. At the time, Washington hadn’t yet enjoyed the position of the latter for an entire year—his Inauguration having taken place a mere ten months earlier in 1789—before our revolutionarily christened Constitution demanded from him his voice.
As enumerated in the article of the Executive, the second of seven of which the first part of the document is composed, it would be Washington’s job as president to “give to the congress information, from time to time, of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient”. As is the case with most lines etched into that redoubtable work, this passage’s beauty—born, by and large, of James Madison’s hand—is its brevity.
And brevity, it so happens, was a trait to which Washington was bound. It was a distinct, stately aspect of his personality (much like his scrupulous honesty, his dignity, or his tireless pride) and one that was forged in the many fires of an arduous life. This was a life through which he ventured on the farms of Virginia, on the frontiers along the west, in retreat at Monongahela, in pursuit at Trenton, and in the forefront of everyone’s adoring and damning minds. He was known not as a loquacious leader nor a glib, garrulous politician. He was frank, stolid, reticent, and sincere. He took seriously the wisdom that for every one mouth, a man is endowed with two ears, and he laconically adhered to this divine ratio of the senses. He humbly recognized his humble origins, acknowledged the lengths to which his knowledge stretched, and often left, with a kind of self-conscious hesitation, the day’s philosophical and rhetorical outbursts to the passions of other men.
As such, it’s no surprise that Washington’s State of the Union Address was not only the country’s first, but also its shortest. In just over a thousand words, he gave to Congress precisely what the Constitution required of him, and not a sentence more.
Having defeated the world’s largest and most omnipotent, pre-Napoleonic power just a few years before, it’s incredible to think that he could’ve covered so much by saying so little. He’d hardly known a day free from King George’s imperial clutch and yet, about this new nation, he hadn’t much to say. Eight years of battle and a thousand lives lost had liberated an extorted colony, divested a king from his cupidity, and left a new nation to find its own way.
Trans-Atlantic trade negotiations were contested and foreign relationships were fraught. The war debt was never-ending, domestic production of vital materials was slow, soldiers returned from gallantry on the front to monotony on the homestead, and all revenue streams were dry. To put it mildly and to understate it grossly, Washington’s, and consequently, ours was as fledgling, uncertain nation barely standing on its own two feet. Surely, the new president needed more than just a page or two to cover all of the internal and external tumult surrounding and threatening this young nation. Nevertheless, he delivered his brief address (focusing in detail on none of those issues) and the State of the Union was evermore to be an annual fair.
Not until Thomas Jefferson’s presidency did the Address’ delivery, if not its essence, change in a marked way. Now, settled comfortably in the town to which General Washington lent his name, Jefferson chose to discharge his annual duty with a written letter, rather than a spoken word. He, in 1801, started what was to become a century-long tradition of giving Congress a State of the Union Address in epistolary form. Instead of reciting from the dais—something the patrician, polymathic Jefferson would doubtless have no trouble to do—he chose to write and send along his thoughts impersonally and without his voice. In some ways, this is not surprising: if any man were to prefer paper and pen to wind and air as a medium of expression and a tapestry of thought, I suppose he would have to be Jefferson. It was his writing, after all, that provided history with its most enlightened piece of political literature it had ever seen and likely ever will, liberated a burdened colony, and created—upon a self-evident truth and an abstract ideal—a new nation from scratch.
In this form, that of the written word, the State of the Union Address would persist until 1913. It was then that Woodrow Wilson’s presidential, if not controversial career began. The strong-jawed, stoic aristocrat and academician from New Jersey wanted more than mere ink-splattered words to fill the chamber’s halls and America’s ears. It was high time, so he thought, to trade in prose for pomp—dusty dry words for the living, breathing art of oratory and speech. He wanted his addresses to be floral and memorable, not desiccated and stale. The ubiquity and popularity of radio as a medium through which Americans could gather their news and information was growing. So too was a heightened interest in the day’s events. A damn fool thing in the Balkans had pitched all of Europe into the First World War. Americans at home were understandably curious, eventually nervous, and ultimately anxious over having been involved in the fight. Against this backdrop, Wilson chose to deliver his State of the Union Address in person, and, save for a few outcasts (like Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter—who proved themselves outcasts in more ways than one), all presidents since have done the same.
It’s my opinion, though, that the era of the oral Address should come to its natural end. As I do with most issues on philosophy, some on religion, and few on economic theory, I have to admit that I agree with the Jeffersonian approach on this topic; he was absolutely right in trying to stop what’s become a decadent, petty, contemptuous spectacle that we call the State of the Union Address.
Jefferson opposed it, in its oral form, on the grounds that it was—as the Francophile of Monticello might’ve called it in his day—plus royaliste que le roi, or “more royalist than the king”. He saw in the act of orally delivering a State of the Union Address the tincture of a monarchical custom that we’d so valiantly fought to erase. He likened it to a “speech from the throne”—a phrase familiar to the tyrant and foreboding to the proletariat. And while his rationale isn’t mine—I don’t think Obama, Bush, nor Clinton, nor even our opulent Trump, for that matter, had or has a pretension to be a king—Jefferson was right in wanting to do away with the speech wholesale.
It’s no longer a dignified nor a unifying event; no edification, benefit, nor improvement is to be had from it. It’s become little more than a display—and a shallow one at that.
Congressmen find their seats and begin immediately posturing without shame. Factionalism is the hors d’oeuvre on which they nimble from the start. Then comes the entrée—a cold serving of froideur peppered with ungenial grins. None leaves hungry, none happy. Each and every member indulges him or herself by putting on airs, grandstanding, and pandering to his or her base. There’s no spontaneity or passionate insight; everything is pre-rehearsed. In the weeks leading up to the Address, each party, and every representative whose membership it owns, has practiced, time and again, when and if they’ll stand, how long and how enthusiastically they’ll cheer, and—most importantly—how much and how conspicuously they’ll sulk. That last one is the biggie. By doing that—namely, sitting in their chairs with arms crossed, brows furrowed, and lips curled, so long as it’s all done in the camera’s bright light—they’ll imprint upon the minds of their base and their self-perception an image of defiance and strength.
And the cameras know it, and it’s this they seek. Anytime the president, whomever he may be, says something even remotely suggestive, the cameras hastily pan to the nearest bleeding heart or reactionary on the Left and on the Right. There, they’ll linger for a bit. In the Democrat or the Republican’s face, the network anchors will try to capture her artificial animosity and his mechanized contempt, to which they’ll dedicate hours of commentary in the days to come. They’ll clinically dissect the insolence with which she carried herself and the haughtiness with which he held his chin. She’ll be chided as unpatriotic, he as aloof, but in the end, neither will be made to look the better for their efforts.
I do hope I’ve made my case. It’s not so much the content of what the president has to say, but the hyper-partisan, unctuous, contemptuous, nauseating context in which he says it that’s led me to this conclusion. The whole thing has become an overwrought, empty affair. It’s become vapid, ugly, and useless. It’s no longer an address, but an act—such as one befitting “Off”-Broadway on the stage—in which masks are painted, emotions donned, and foolish characters put on display. The State of the Union Address has evolved, or devolved, into something it was never meant to be. It’s decadent and dying—a tragedy whose end I’ll be only too happy and eager to see. And as it takes its final breath, and leaves its current theatricality behind, I recommend we look to our greatest precedent, Thomas Jefferson, and the State of the Union might at last survive.