Eliminate the “State of the Union” Address? What’s Left Then?

Lewis Gould argues in a Washington Post op-ed that we ought to “end the bombast’ of the annual presidential State of the Union address to Congress.

What, get rid of that ritual of somber attention to our leader? C’mon, Lew, there’s little enough left of tradition now that men no longer wear hats.

Professor of history emeritus (which means he’s retired from active duty) at the University of Texas, Gould wrote a history of the modern United States Senate, plus a bunch of other quite well received books on the presidency and Congress. Which I guess gives him stature, but maybe too little sense of what we who are not historians need of our presidents.

FdrstateofunionWe’re in a time (and have been for some years) when we don’t really think of ourselves as ‘having a president.’ In place of that, we have presidents in transition, who’ve either just been elected or will soon have to run for re-election, kind of one foot on banana-peel presidencies. FDR was certainly president, the only one I’d ever heard of until I was ten years old and it seems we had only two ‘comfortable’ presidencies after that—Eisenhower and Reagan.

Which may be kind of a long way ‘round to thinking it’s a comfort, stage managed or not, to see our president come into the Congress once a year to the Marine Band playing ‘Ruffles and Flourishes.’ Yeah, it’s theatre. Maybe we need a little theatre from time to time to re-establish in our minds the grandeur and magnificence of what is too often the partisan and vicious.

Gould says in his op-ed piece:

“On Tuesday night, President Bush, like his recent predecessors, will play his part in the gaudy spectacle of ballyhoo and hype that the State of the Union has become. From a Rocky-style entrance of the president through a gantlet of applauding solons to the introduction of mini-celebrities carefully situated in the gallery, the prime-time extravaganza will have all the spontaneity of — and about as much meaning as — a televised Hollywood awards ceremony.”

Still in all, we like the Academy Awards. They give us a once-a-year chance to take some time out and give out a few honors to Hollywood, the same as we do for Emmys and Golden Globes and Country Music.

We catch our presidents these days, heads ducked, on their way to or from their helicopter. Business as usual means a few hollered questions they don’t want to answer, accompanied by a scowl or a wave, one as meaningless as the other. Messy democracy, but we’re forced into it as politics become so partisan that presidents no longer risk regularly scheduled press conferences.

Gould longs for the days when presidents sent off their State of the Union documents to the Congress without delivering them verbally. The fact that congressional and popular ignorance of those tomes rendered them meaningless, seems preferable in his mind to Bush’s Tuesday opportunity to ‘put a best face’ on his presidency before the Congress and the televised American public.

BushstateofunionWithout quite the decibel level of campaign rhetoric, our sitting presidents are able to lay before the public their own report card. The country and the Congress may think the self-grading too high or low but, buoyed in the arms of their speech-writers, each president has his day and his say. And so, in one hunk, the current occupant of the Oval Office gets to lay out his hopes for the administration’s coming legislative year before the House and Senate, without interruption, and the country hears them as well.

Hurrah for Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘bully pulpit’ is my reaction. I am not a great fan of this president. But I’m a whole cheering-section for presidencies in general and celebrate the few and far-between chances they have by tradition to rally the troops. Congress, for its part, treats them during that brief speech with honor and civility, no matter that it’s more Roman games than serious politics.

Tuesday, let the games begin.

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