My friends and family describe me as a political junky. In that I follow politics obsessively, they’re right. My idea of living it up on Friday night is reading audit reports and filing open records requests.
But I’ve never felt comfortable with the theater of politics, and theater is what the State of the Union speeches are all about. They’ve become carefully-choreographed performances that don’t so much inform, as was the intent of the Constitution’s mandate for these reports, as provide a high-profile venue partisan politics.
The President makes his way into the House of Representatives, as though he were a rock star and not an elected public servant, and proceeds to lay out his political platform complete with applause lines and camera cut-aways to various members of Congress who communicate their approval or disapproval with their facial expressions.
It’s a big waste of everyone’s time, but it wasn’t always so. While our first two Presidents, Washington and Adams, delivered their annual reports to Congress in the form of a speech President Thomas Jefferson started the tradition of delivering the State of the Union in writing.
Jefferson wrote in a letter to the President of the Senate accompanying his State of the Union address that delivering his address in person was “inconvenient.”
The circumstances under which we find ourselves at this place rendering inconvenient the mode heretofore practiced of making by personal address the first communications between the legislative and executive branches, I have adopted that by message, as used on all subsequent occasions through the session. In doing this I have had principal regard to the convenience of the Legislature, to the economy of their time, to their relief from the embarrassment of immediate answers on subjects not yet fully before them, and to the benefits thence resulting to the public affairs. Trusting that a procedure rounded in these motives will meet their approbation, I beg leave through you, sir, to communicate the inclosed message, with the documents accompanying it, to the honorable the Senate, and pray you to accept for yourself and them the homage of my high respect and consideration.
More to the point, Jefferson believed the State of the Union was far too similar to the traditional “speech from the throne” delivered in monarchies, notably the British monarchy Jefferson had helped America leave behind.
Jefferson’s tradition lasted for more than a century, until Woodrow Wilson began the practice of delivering them in person again. Which brings us to where we are today, with the State of the Union representing the annual high water mark for presidential hype.
In this modern media area, with our President almost omnipresent in our media (you can’t even watch the Super Bowl without seeing him), it would be nice to go back to the written State of the Union address.
But I doubt we’ll ever elect anyone with that sort of principled humility to national office again.