The Absurd Pagentry Of The State Of The Union

Tomorrow evening, the nations broadcast and cable networks will interrupt their regular programming for the annual spectacle that is the State of the Union Address. While it’s not quite as ridiculous as Great Britain’s absurdly monarchical State Opening Of Parliament, it nonetheless has it’s moments.

Which is why, I think, Gene Healy’s column on how the State of The Union has become little more than an exercise in statist theatrics is completely right.

As Healy, points out, the modern State of the Union speech owes almost nothing to history. With the exception of Presidents Washington and Adams, no President until Woodrow Wilson actually delivered the annual message to Congress required by the Constitution in person. The man who broke the mold, and set a precedent that should have never been broken was Woodrow Wilson:

For 112 years, presidents conformed to Jefferson’s example, until populist pedagogue Woodrow Wilson delivered his first annual message in person. “I am sorry to see revived the old Federalistic custom of speeches from the throne,” one senator lamented. “I regret this cheap and tawdry imitation of English royalty.”

Yet Wilson’s habit caught on. Most presidents in the 20th century delivered the message in person. And in 1966, Lyndon Johnson moved the speech to prime-time viewing hours, the better to reach a national audience.

Thus the State of the Union has settled into its familiar, modern incarnation: a laundry list of policy demands packaged in pomp and circumstance. And as our presidents have grown more imperial, the tone of the annual message has grown more imperious.

Not to mention the incessant interruptions for applause, partisan and otherwise, and, in an innovation introduced by President Reagan, the use of audience members to make political points of one sort or another.

It’s hard not to analogize the modern State of the Union Address to the ancient British practice of the Monarch addressing Parliament and telling it what the Crown wished to accomplish. The difference in modern times, of course, is that the British Monarch is merely reading a speech prepared by aides to the Prime Ministers, whereas, American Presidents actually think they have the power to accomplish their goals.

Update: Healy has further thoughts on the SOTU at Cato@Liberty.
H/T: The LP Blog

  • Brad Warbiany

    The strange thing about it is that you’ll see Bush get up there talking about all the things he wants to do. But since Presidents are not legislators, the Democrat Congress will basically give his speech the one-finger salute.