Blame Democrats for the State of the Union Circus

The tradition has mutated into something bigger, dumber, and more dysfunctional than the Framers ever could have imagined.

Donald Trump
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The executive is duty bound to provide the legislature with information and recommendations “from time to time,” as the State of the Union clause in Article II of the Constitution so vaguely puts it. The Framers were surely right to make the president accountable to Congress in this way. They were also probably right not to overthink it.

The State of the Union is not mentioned in James Madison’s Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. It pops up in The Federalist Papers just once, in Alexander Hamilton’s “Federalist No. 77,” and only to be discharged as one of the presidential powers he’s not even going to bother defending, as it would require an “insatiable avidity for censure to invent” objections to it.

Of course, in the absence of firm constraints, this little bit of our institutional order has—like almost all of the others—mutated into something bigger, dumber, and more dysfunctional than the Framers ever could have imagined; a spectacle with bloated, forgettable prose, guest galleries full of tokens and totems, and a full hour of competitive hand clapping.

It wasn’t always thus.

The first State of the Union address—George Washington’s in 1790—was just 1,089 words. That’s shorter than this essay. It was also, by contemporary standards, noticeably, even comically, lacking in specifics. It reads like the general forgot it was due until the morning of, and in a panic started scribbling half-remembered phrases from the Constitutional Convention onto a hempen scroll during the carriage ride to Federal Hall.

Uh, “… in resuming your consultations for the general good …” yada yada “… and to secure the blessings which a gracious Providence has placed within our reach …” et cetera and so forth, ummm … “Among the many interesting objects, which will engage your attention, that of providing for the common defense will merit particular regard …”

What isn’t throat-clearing or platitudinous nevertheless bears Washington’s customary comportment, his humility and reserve. In a thoroughly passive voice, he offers only “reason to hope” that tribal attacks on the frontier will be attended to; he suffices to “trust” that Congress will employ “all proper means” to promote agriculture and commerce; he merely “cannot forbear intimating” his belief that “due attention” be paid to building new postal roads.

Ten years later, President Thomas Jefferson’s first State of the Union address swelled to some 3,200 words and had a little more sex appeal, including punchy descriptions of the U.S.S. Enterprise’s successes off the Barbary Coast. But Jefferson also famously began the practice, uninterrupted for a century hence, of delivering the State of the Union as a letter to be read by House and Senate clerks, thinking an in-person address unpalatably kingly.

Jefferson, a populist, nevertheless had his good points, and that was one of them.

When the 45th president gives his second State of the Union (now scheduled for February 5), he will doubtless stay clear of reserve and humility, and include at least one brute imperative: “Build the wall.” Or at least “Build the wall or steel barrier.” Or maybe “Build wall” if you’re into Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen’s whole brevity thing.

Another safe bet is that his SOTU will be long. Much longer than Washington’s or Jefferson’s. Last year’s address was more than 5,000 words and took an hour and 20 minutes to deliver.

Historically, it has been Democratic presidents who have liked the sound of their own voice best. The Congressional Research Service has the data: In the years since the State of the Union has been televised, you’ll be shocked to know that one William Jefferson Clinton gave the longest speech by delivery time, an hour and 29 minutes for his 2000 swan song; and that Clinton’s 1995 address was the longest in-person speech by word count, at 9,190. In 1981, Jimmy Carter delivered only a written message on his way out the door, but it smashed the word-count record, at 33,667, or roughly one Chronicle of Narnia. By contrast, the Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan delivered the shortest addresses of the era, taking just 29 and 31 minutes in 1972 and 1986, respectively.

In fact, all of the presidents who did the most to enlarge and embellish the State of the Union were Democrats. Woodrow Wilson revived the in-person delivery and dispensed with the notion that the speech should be a report on the executive departments and not a rallying cry for the president’s agenda. After “Cool” Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover reverted to written messages, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered 11 of his norm-shattering 12 State of the Union addresses in person, all broadcast over the radio. Harry Truman’s 1947 speech was the first to appear on television. And Barack Obama (with an assist from Associate Justice Samuel Alito) at last pulled the judiciary branch into the whole sorry circus that the event had by that time become.

As someone whose admiration for Democratic presidents is limited, it gives me some pleasure to note this through line, but not as much as you might think. The impulses on display in these presidents’ treatment of the annual address—Wilson’s and FDR’s imperiousness and impatience with the constitutional restraints on their power; Clinton’s unctuousness and his and Obama’s lofty pedantry—are all impulses shared by the current, Republican president.

One of the few fringe benefits of this presidency has been the withering of certain institutions built on professional Washington’s enormous self-regard. Absent a “cool” president, or at least one who’ll play along, we’ve seen the end of the celebrity-studded Kennedy Center galas and the auto-destruction of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi canceled her initial invitation to deliver the State of the Union in light of the government shutdown, I nurtured hope that the president would respond by deflating its importance, as well.

Absent that, I thought he might at least replace the event with a kind of “Taco Bell Presents SOTU Fest 2019: Live From the Rose Garden and With a Special Performance by Nickelback.” That would have achieved a similar purpose.

Alas, POTUS seems to view the SOTU as such a valuable brand property that he was willing to pretty much publicly beg Pelosi to give it back to him.

It’s too bad that she did.

Under the old monoculture—with Meet the Press and Firing Line and an hour’s worth of evening news to engage with politics before Perry Mason—making a to-do of the speech may have had some value. In that world, getting everyone together once a year to talk big picture might have made sense.

But ours is an era in which pretty much everyone participates in pretty much every political discussion, pretty much all day, pretty much everywhere. Social media is a Sartrean nightmare of bad vibes and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweets (I swear, blocking her made it worse), and you can’t stare at any glowing rectangle for more than 20 minutes without some stooge or grifter from one side or the other getting up in your grill.

In such an environment, we need less pageantry, not more. If Pelosi and the president were real patriots, they’d put the modern SOTU out of its misery, and us out of ours.