The Forgotten Home Front

What are the main elements of national well-being? It is startling how out-of-date and out-of-touch our official politics has become

At kabuki performances in Japan audiences sometimes exclaim "Matte mashita!" during crucial points in the drama. In context this means something like "Here it comes!" or "This is what we've been waiting for!" and it greets the best-known lines in the play. If American theatergoers followed the same custom, people would yell "Matte mashita!" when they heard "To be or not to be ..." in Hamlet or "I'll be back" in a Terminator movie.

In American political culture, which displays some of the same affection for formulaic stagecraft, the theatrical highlight of the year is the State of the Union address. Presidents have presented Congress with reports on the state of national affairs since the republic's beginning, as required by the Constitution. But since Woodrow Wilson established the modern custom of a President's delivering the report in person, in a speech to a special session of Congress, the State of the Union address has evolved into the main kabuki-like ceremony in our national politics.

Even more than the inauguration, the State of the Union has become a ritual celebration of the glory of the presidency. At an inauguration the excitement surrounding the President is often tempered by the pathos of an old President's being ushered off the scene. The State of the Union is all about the incumbent.

With live TV cameras on them, representatives and even proud senators fidget in a packed House chamber until the President arrives. Foreign diplomats troop in to pay the world's respects to America's leader. The military chiefs of staff, in their uniforms, are there; the justices of the Supreme Court, in their robes; the members of the Cabinet—minus one, who will take over the government in case of disaster. Honored guests, whose achievements will be praised in the speech, are seated near the President's spouse. With all the supporting cast in place, the sergeant at arms comes to the chamber's door—and the President makes his way toward the dais through a crowd of cheering politicians from both parties, many reaching to touch him as he moves by. He stands at the front of the chamber until the cheers finally die—and as soon as they do, the speaker of the House plays his role in the drama. He tells his colleagues that he has the "high privilege and the distinct honor in presenting to you the President of the United States." As he utters these words, another minutes-long standing ovation begins.

On it goes for most of the next hour: the President's backers cheering the partisan items in his list of proposals, the opposition sitting noticeably still at those moments. The Vice President and the speaker of the House, onstage props visible whenever the President is on camera, try to sit still at all times. Perhaps at the beginning of the speech, perhaps at the end, the President builds toward his Matte mashita! line. "The state of the union," he tells the crowd—which prepares to cheer, knowing that the expected sentence has arrived—"is good."

Or perhaps it's not just "good." It was good "with room for improvement" according to Gerald Ford as he prepared to leave office in 1977; and it was "sound" according to Jimmy Carter the following year. For Bill Clinton in 1995, speaking after his party had been routed in midterm elections, the state of the union was merely "stronger than it was two years ago." By the end of his second term Clinton was ready to declare the state of the union "the strongest it has ever been." George W. Bush began his State of the Union address one year ago, as bombs fell in Afghanistan, with the speech's punch line, an artful two-sentence version of the usual one-liner: "As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers. Yet the state of our union has never been stronger."

In its substance as in its procedural pomp, the State of the Union address has come to represent all that is ritualistic and insiderish about modern politics. It is the one major speech a President is sure to deliver each year. Therefore, the day after one address has been given, much of the government gears up to influence the content of the next year's. The impetus comes in the coded language of Washington: a sentence here about the "high priority" of some new education program, which can be used to defend an extra $100 million in budget requests; a mention there of a "strong new partnership" with a certain country, which can settle a dispute between the State Department and the Pentagon. Speechwriters dread this speech as they do no other assignment (or at least I did, when working for Jimmy Carter), because so many forces conspire to make it a clotted, committee-bred document whose hidden signals the ordinary listener will completely miss. The closest thing to a memorable line in recent addresses was Bill Clinton's declaration, in 1996, that "the era of big government is over."

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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