Analysis: How the State of the Union address devolved
TIME TO DITCH THE STATE OF THE UNION SPEECH? Critics say the annual State of the Union address has turned into “a made for television pep rally.”
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
There was a time when presidents didn’t even bother to deliver the State of the Union address. They just sent a report in writing to both houses of Congress.
But that was long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
A host of critics say the annual speech has become predictable, trite and essentially useless.
In a recent missive, conservative columnist George Will practically busted his bow tie, calling it a “made for television pep rally” and “the most execrable ceremony in the nation’s civic liturgy, regardless of which party’s president is abusing it.”
Last year, Peter Roff of U.S. News & World Report called for getting rid of it altogether, saying “the speech has become a giant ‘nothingburger.’ ”
Peggy Noonan, the former speechwriter who coined the phrase “a thousand points of light” for President George H.W. Bush, sounds like she’s ready to turn the lights out on the SOTU extravaganza.
“Americans aren’t impressed anymore by congressmen taking to their feet and cheering,” Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. “They look as if they have electric buzzers on their butts that shoot them into the air when the applause line comes.”
Was the State of the Union always this way?
A quick look at history says no. Like so many things in the modern age, it has changed for political and technological reasons.
The speech began with one phrase in the U.S. Constitution pertaining to the president: “He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union.”
That’s it. There’s not even a requirement the president give a speech.
In fact, for about 150 years — between the time of Thomas Jefferson and William Howard Taft — presidents simply sent a written report to Capitol Hill.
In an effort to drum up support for his new administration’s progressive policies, Woodrow Wilson in 1913 was the first president since John Adams to deliver a State of the Union speech. Since then, like cherry blossoms around the Jefferson Memorial and mosquitoes in the Tidal Basin in summertime, it has become a Washington staple.
In 1947, Harry Truman was the first president to deliver his remarks on television. For the sake of viewers (and TV advertisers), it was probably a good thing Truman’s speech the year before wasn’t televised. It ran 25,000 words — about five times longer than a typical SOTU address.
But the speech was still a low-key affair and was delivered during the day.
It wasn’t until 1965 that Lyndon Johnson‘s administration, eager to promote its Great Society programs, realized that delivering the speech in prime time essentially gave LBJ a terrific platform to go directly to the American people and look stately and presidential — without getting interrupted, except for applause.
The following year, the networks allowed Republicans to give a response to LBJ’s speech and the tradition of a rebuttal from the opposition party started.
In 1982, Ronald Reagan singled out a member of the gallery in his State of the Union speech. Just days before, a plane crashed into the Potomac River and a government worker named Lenny Skutnik jumped into the frigid water and helped save one of the passengers. Reagan pointed to Skutnik, who was sitting next to First Lady Nancy Reagan and the House chamber erupted in cheers:
It was an electrifying moment and since then, virtually every president has taken the opportunity to try to match it.
However, there’s been a growing sense that in recent years the practice has become trite and somewhat patronizing. There are few political tricks older than a candidate basking in the reflected glory of the modest Everyman and Everywoman who’s done something heroic.
The current political climate hasn’t seemed to help boost the prestige of the SOTU, either.
In 2010, President Obama blasted the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, with six of the justices sitting just a few feet in front of him. Obama said it “reversed a century of law” and would “open the floodgates for special interests.” Justice Samuel Alito shook his head, muttering, “That’s not true.”
Here’s the clip:
Some criticized the president as being rude and Alito hasn’t attended another SOTU address.
Chief Justice John Roberts has questioned whether justices should follow the lead of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas and not appear at the speech at all, saying: “The image of having the members of one branch of government standing up, literally surrounding the Supreme Court, cheering and hollering while the court — according to the requirements of protocol — has to sit there expressionless, I think is very troubling.”
A year earlier, while Obama was praising his plan for health care reform in a speech to a joint session of Congress, Republican House member Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted, “You lie!” It didn’t happen at a State of the Union address but caused an uproar, with Wilson issuing an apology and being formally rebuked in the House:
Putting all of the criticisms of the SOTU address together, is it time to put the speech out to pasture?
Amity Shlaes, who recently authored a best-selling biography of Calvin Coolidge, doesn’t think so.
“The state of the union is always a good snapshot no matter what,” Shlaes said in a telephone interview with New Mexico Watchdog. “Should it be shorter? Probably. Should it be less pandering to groups? Probably. But I don’t object it at all … It’s a good snapshot of what’s going on in (the presidents’) heads and their planning.”
Besides, given the political realties, it’s difficult to imagine sitting presidents passing up a chance to deliver what can amount to an extended campaign speech in front of the entire country and an international audience.
Having said that, if in time the State of the Union comes to be seen as an exercise in emptiness, it may run the risk of simply being ignored.
And for politicians, that truly is a fate worse than death.
Contact Rob Nikolewski at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski
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