January 31, 2006

"This cheap and tawdry imitation of English royalty."

That's what Woodrow Wilson said [CORRECTION: caused a senator to say] about the State of the Union address, as quoted in this NYT op-ed by Francis Wilkinson, who says the President's constitutionally required annual message ought to be delivered in writing. That was the way Thomas Jefferson did it. It's not that Wilkinson's against speeches. In fact, he's a speechwriter. But:
When presidents exhale the breath of history — "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," or, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" — they invariably do it someplace other than in the State of the Union. A rhetorical omnibus making all local stops, the speech conveys a year's worth of departmental hackwork. In "Lend Me Your Ears," William Safire's compilation of great speeches, not one State of the Union address makes the table of contents.
And then there's the way the State of the Union isn't about the state of the union:
The State of the Union is all about His Majesty, the president. Is he master of Congress or supplicant? How far will his poll numbers rise? How did he perform? Mr. Bush may not like French, but the address is the embodiment of "L'├ętat, c'est moi," transforming citizens into subjects, much as Jefferson feared....

Manipulation is the essence of the game, after all, and because no one ever stops playing it, the president is expected to exploit his free shot at the goal for all it's worth.
But what's the problem, really? I know a perfect way to force the President to deliver his speech in writing, in my little world. I leave the TV off, and I read the text in the paper. You can do it too. So let George Bush have his fun tonight making a roomful of erstwhile blabbermouths sit there and listen to him for an hour and perform the tedious clapping/not clapping ritual. And skip the commentators. You don't need to know the precise number of times they clapped and the lengths of the various clappings.

I see there's a second State-of-the-Union-is-no-damned-good op-ed. It's got a hilarious quote from one of Warren Harding's SOTUs:
"The motor car reflects our standard of living and gauges the speed of our present life. It long ago ran down Simple Living, and never halted to inquire about the prostrate figure which fell as its victim."


smilerz said...

"I regret this cheap and tawdry imitation of English royalty"
Actually the quote is from Senator John Sharp Williams of Mississippi criticing Wilson for breaking from the traditional practice of providing the annual message in writing.

Scipio said...

If I were President, every year for the State of the Union I would recite some iconic American political speech from the annals of history.

Like Soggy Sweat's Whiskey Speech, or Lincoln's Second Inaugural.

Steve Donohue said...

I didn't read the artcile, so maybe it mentions this, but Wilson was the first president after Jefferson to deliver his State of the Union to Congress rather than sending the text. He did so because he felt that the president should take a more forward role in our political system, like the prime minister in Europe. I think he appeared before joint sessions of Congress three or four times in just his first year in office.

Mark Daniels said...

In spite of his protestations to the contrary, Jefferson's primary reason for not delivering the State of the Union was no doubt that he was a poor public speaker.

Since Jefferson is one of the most loathesome liars and smarmy characters in American political history, it shouldn't surprise that he would out of habit, veil his personal insecurities behind a "republican" argument. This, from a man who, claiming to be an republican who believed in limited executive power, while president, undertook the most breathtaking illegal land grab ever.

When things didn't go Jefferson's way, it was his characteristic to go into hiding. He did that during the Revolution while serving as governor of Virginia. He became a virtual recluse in the face of criticism during his second presidential term.

And while serving as Washington's secretary of state, he chose to use a tawdry journalist-for-hire to go after his Cabintet rival, Alexander Hamilton, and to portray the President as a credulous oaf or worse, a would-be-king. Of course, Jefferson never took responsibility for this stuff, eventually going back to Virginia to direct his secret orchestrations against Washington's Administration and to undermine the Constitution for the sake of advancing his own political ambitions through a series of resolutions he drafted for several states, each claiming that if they chose, states could abrogate the power of federal laws within their boundaries.

Jefferson decided not to speak to the Congress to report on the State of the Union to hide.

Conversely, Woodrow Wilson, a man confident in his oratorical skills, resumed the public delivery of the address. And poorer public speaking presidents have probably rued the change in precedent ever since. But unlike Jefferson, they've taken their medicine.

If there is one thing that I would change about the public delivery of the State of the Union message, it would be this: Lose the Lenny Skutnik Moment. Skutnik was the guy who pulled several people out of the Potomac River after the plane on which they were passengers had crashed. It happened during the Reagan Administration. Reagan's State of the Union message happened several weeks later and the President's handlers made sure that Skutnik was seated in the House gallery. The President then introduced the hero--and he was a hero--to the gathered members of government to a thunderous ovation.

Ever since then, the Lenny Skutnik Moment, often many Lenny Skutnik Moments, have become the boring conventions of not only State of the Union messages, but State of the State messages by US governors.

Two years ago, I attended Bob Taft's annual message here in Ohio. The Skutnik Moment came when the governor introduced one of the Smucker family from Orrville, Ohio, a major Ohio employer of jellies to the joint session of the General Assembly. (That day I learned too, that the Smucker people provided each members of the Ohio House and Senate with samples of a new peanut butter and jelly cracker combo.) It's great that the Smucker family have maintained their strong ties to Ohio. But does that warrant a feel-good introduction?

If you catch any of the annual addresses from US governors, you know that the Skutnik Moment has reached absurd and painful proportions, the chief executives often looking less like governors than latter-day Ed Sullivans introducing various embarrassed luminaries planted in the audience for obligatory ovations from an otherwise unattentive legislature.

One element of leadership is presenting a vision. The State of the Union message can give presidents the opportunity to do that in person. But the power of that opportunity would be enhanced, I think, if the public addresses were shorter...and if we could lose the Lenny Skutnik Moment.

Mark Daniels

Greg said...

Ouch Mark! Do you have a grudge against Thomas Jefferson or something?

Anyway, great point about the "Skutnik Moment".


Nick said...

Of course, the Constitution does say that the "state of the union" is more than just reporting on the state of the union. The text is "He 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"

Granted the speech in recent years has become more about the latter than the former, but it's his right as President.

HSans said...

I re-read the following passage a number of times because it describes this whole event in the most succinct way I have read anywhere:

... But the real problem with the State of the Union is not vapidity. The problem is fraud. Because the address has increasingly little to do with the union — that is, the 300 million of us who represent the temporal sum of these United States. The speech instead has to do with the state of just one of us. ...


reader_iam said...

Mark: It's always so bracing when you go all sharply historical on us. I can feel my very posture improve as I read.

Great comment & perspective.

I know a perfect way to force the President to deliver his speech in writing, in my little world. I leave the TV off, and I read the text in the paper. You can do it too.

Heh. Perfect. Although, personally, I'm temperamentally incapable of not subjecting myself to seeing it Live And In Person! Virtually speaking, of course.

You don't need to know the precise number of times they clapped and the lengths of the various clappings.

I do too, damnit!

And I would give .... well, I don't know, but a lot if only I could hear a quote such as Harding's in a modern-day SOTU. Or even just hear Harding's quote, well, quoted.

reader_iam said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ross said...

The writer describes the Warren Harding quote as a "stunning non sequitur, unequaled since," but I think it wraps a lot of truth into a folksy rhetorical package.

reader_iam said...

Sorry for the repeat. All sorts of technical problems, for some reason, today.

Pastor_Jeff said...


Thanks for the historical commentary! After reading recent works on Washington, Adams, and Hamilton, I totally agree with you on Jefferson.

We just had our Skutnik moment here in Missouri when the Republican Governor introduced a family who had recently survived a flood caused by a dam break at a state park. It was cringe-worthy.

Mark Daniels said...

By the way, I suppose that the Smuckers are "employers of jellies," but I meant to say that they are major Ohio employers and makers of jellies.

I need an editor!

Mark Daniels

Yogi 's World and Music said...

I love it - "Skutnik" - rhymes with "Sputnik" - orbiting the dome...hahaha!

But actually, I want to take this moment to introduce you to my next door neighbor, the lady who fed my dog last week when I was late coming home from work. Now there's an example of the strong moral fiber that comprises the backbone of our great Union!

...uh...you can clap now....

Elizabeth said...

Mark, thanks for the best reading I'm likely to enjoy all day. And please don't change my favorite phrase! I've spent a few minutes enjoying the possibilities of "employers of jellies."

No doubt the state of the union is strong, but we need to make some hard decisions. There will be cuts in something, but the people hardest hit by them will be better off in the long run.

A.VanEss said...

Think there's a reason Carter didn't show his face? And President Bush should emulate Carter?!! In any way shape or form - NO!!

A.VanEss said...

Think there's a reason Carter didn't show his face? And President Bush should emulate Carter?!! In any way shape or form - NO!!

Kirk Parker said...

I would totally love it if Bush took to giving the SOTU in writing, for the simple reason that it would p*ss off so many in the chattering class.