The Silliest Speech in the Union

What’s wrong with the president’s annual address.

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George Bush is being criticized for acting like a king as he asserts extraordinary new powers for his office. So it would be clever political theater if this week he delivered his State of the Union address on paper. He could emulate Thomas Jefferson, who in 1801 mailed his speech in, arguing that the ceremony smacked too much of the British monarchy.

Today, Jefferson would weep. Tuesday night, by tradition, the Senate sergeant-at-arms will herald the president’s arrival as if Bush were riding in a sedan chair. Then as the president makes his way to the well of the House of Representatives, members of Congress will pat him and moon at him and shake his hand like children trying to win a prize. Many of them will have skipped dinner to position themselves on the aisle so they can be seen touching Bush in prime time. Leaders who command this kind of sucking-up are usually the kind the president singles out as candidates for regime change.

Since 1913, when Woodrow Wilson reversed Jefferson’s practice and delivered the speech himself, presidents have been developing the constitutionally mandated report into political theater. In 1966 Lyndon Johnson moved the address into prime time. This caused Republicans to insist on the first of the puny out-party responses. Now, we are left with a speech known for its outsized promises, tiresome applause interruptions, and flabby rhetoric.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Many of the traditions that ruin the night serve no good purpose. They can be snipped out to shorten the speech and forestall the childish behavior politicians seem to think is also constitutionally mandated. Here’s how we can get rid of the three greatest excesses weighing down the State of the Union.

1.Put your hands down. The president could enter the hall through a back door to duck the pre-speech petting. But it’s not clear what might be done to stop members from interrupting his speech so often with their applause. In part, the press is to blame for this. We once treated the clapping as a serious gauge of support. After Kennedy’s first State of the Union, the New York Times devoted a separate story to the topic: “Capitol statisticians reported that President Kennedy’s State of the Union was interrupted thirty-seven times by applause from one or both sides of the center aisle. … In seven State of the Union appearances before Congress President Eisenhower scored as high as fifty-seven interruptions for applause. … His average was thirty three.” If the press was going to take the clapping seriously, what were politicians left to do but get into an arms race?

Now there is clapping interrupted by speaking. The president’s party cheers him like a pep squad. (Go Wildcats! Score that tax cut! MSA’s are here to stay!) This in turn invites unserious behavior by the opposition. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid make theatrical scowls that can be picked up by the camera. Nothing says “vote Democratic” like an arched eyebrow while Bush is speaking. Members of the opposition applaud formulaically when they think it would be bad form to be noticed doing otherwise.

In addition to making the speech an interminable bore, the applause race creates the wrong kind of incentives for White House speechwriters. They have to keep that clapping coming, so the rhetoric gets overblown on all topics. Every line has to be a sunny one. In 1975 Gerald Ford said, “I must say to you that the state of the Union is not good.” Today, this kind of candor is only useful for laughs at late-night speechwriting meetings.

2.Stick to the basics. George Bush has used his State of the Union addresses seriously. Each has had a sweeping policy initiative at its core—from a national commitment to fighting terrorism to a program for overhauling Social Security. He has also used the speech to unveil big surprises, like his $15 billion plan to combat AIDS in Africa.

But for every memorable line like Bush’s declaration of an “axis of evil,” there have been pages of throwaway sentences devoted to a laundry list of initiatives and pledges. George Washington spoke only 833 words in his first State of the Union, but presidents now typically clock in at closer to 5,000. This inexorable growth is the result of lobbying by Cabinet secretaries, legislators, and actual lobbyists, all of whom see it as crucial that the president mention their pet issues in his important speech, even if he does nothing but restate familiar bromides about it. There is little reason for White House aides to refuse; the president gets credit for boosting a program just by referring to it.

Here, presidents should follow the Carter model (there’s something you don’t hear often). Carter focused two-thirds of his 1980 address on the threat from the Soviet Union, and his discussion of domestic issues dealt almost exclusively with a demand for passage of energy legislation. Sticking to the big issues would also circumvent the wild spinning to put the best face on the budget Bush will deliver a few days later. That’s where the true domestic priorities are spelled out in more specific language that often directly contradicts the rhetoric of the speech. In a fantasy world, White House aides would hyperlink the text of the president’s speech to the line items in his budget.

3.No more living props. Ronald Reagan was the first to work audience members into his speech. In 1982, he publicly lauded Lenny Skutnik, a government worker who weeks before dove into the icy waters of the Potomac River to rescue victims of an airliner crash. That was a great bit of theater, but the exponential expansion of the number of “heroes” in the first lady’s box has made the gesture as meaningful as a Hallmark birthday card. Like most of the tedious and repetitive rituals now associated with the president’s big speech, the practice has become so formulaic that to simply drop it would count as inspirational spontaneity.