Article II of the Constitution requires that the president “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.” That’s exactly what presidents did, usually in the form of a written report — typically as dull as dishwater — for most of the nation’s history.
Where did we go wrong? Grandiose Woodrow Wilson got the idea that he should make his recommendations in the form of an annual speech, but even then, reticent Calvin Coolidge mercifully reverted to the written communique.
The notion that the message must be delivered as a speech wasn’t fixed until the great radio orator Franklin D. Roosevelt saw the technological opportunity to seize a political edge. Ostensibly a communication with Congress, the broadcast speech could be pitched over the heads of the lawmakers direct to the American people. Since then, it’s been showtime. Harry S. Truman embraced the new medium of television. Lyndon B. Johnson upped the ante by delivering the address in prime time. And Ronald Reagan lent his Hollywood flair by seeding the gallery with real-life heroes for what thereafter became ritualized shout-outs.
With each edition, the exercise became more of a spectacle and less of an update; more about the president and less about the Union; more about humbling Congress and less about communicating with it. Presidents come and go, now this party, now that one, but the humiliation is forever. The president’s partisans are expected to leap up with a roar at every boilerplate banality, while the opposition is to sit politely as he attempts to dig their political graves.
When, in 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted “You lie!” during a speech to Congress by President Barack Obama, it was a gross breach of decorum and a bad omen of things to come. Since then, members of Congress have searched for ways to steal their slivers of the presidential spotlight, while senior military officers and Supreme Court justices squirmed ever more miserably in their seats, reluctant bystanders at a souring circus.
This year’s address was the logical endpoint of the long-gathering trend. President Trump made no pretense of communicating information to Congress. He used the time to unveil his reelection message. He repurposed his fellow elected Republicans as campaign rally acolytes (chanting, before he even began, “Four more years!”). He poked and prodded the Democrats into one indecorous breach after another: televised eyerolls, face-palms, counter-chants and walkouts, culminating in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s theatrical ripping of her copy of the speech. Trump’s reality-TV-style giveaways — a scholarship, a medal, a family reunion — had me wondering if, a la Oprah, he would dish out new cars at the end.
Many who watched the speech lapped it up, and many others felt Trump went too far in the direction of ballyhoo and hyperbole. But I don’t think anyone could fail to recognize that this was the standard State of the Union address, only ever so much more so. It was like a Trump hotel: the same old thing made gaudier and more vulgar. The president obviously believes, with H.L. Mencken, that “no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”
No doubt the parties each hope to gain some advantage from the smackdown: rousing red meat for Republicans, ostentatious outrage for Democrats. But they ought to find common ground in the prerogatives of Congress — the Article I branch of government, first among equals. The constitutional mandate to communicate with Congress was intended to be a check on executive authority, not a magnifier of presidential egos.
Neither the Constitution nor history requires that Congress open its doors to these annual exercises of self-promotion. This, being an election year, is the perfect time for leaders from both parties and both chambers to close ranks in defense of their institutional dignity. They don’t know which party will be expected to steam silently and which will be baying slavishy after the next inauguration. They know only that, sooner or later as presidents come and go, every member of Congress will be humiliated in all the available ways.
Instead of an invitation to exploit another joint session, the next president should receive instructions from Congress to file a written report only. The state of the Union would be relieved.
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