It’s Time to Abolish the Annual State of the Union Address
Cancel the Year’s Most Boring TV Production
Smack in the middle of prime time on Tuesday night, the President and Congress will gather in the House chamber for the year’s most irrelevant and boring television production – the annual State of the Union message.
It’s all a waste of television time, more than an hour of Washington’s tribute to itself – a self-conscious spectacle of ego gratification rivaled only by presidential inaugurations. The next President of the United States would enjoy a jump in the polls by canceling the whole performance.
Television viewers would be the winners. The only losers would be Washington’s chattering class that thrives on the event. Desperate to fill television time, commentators of every stripe spend days telling the public what the president will or should say. Then they hang on the President’s every word and deliver instant analysis. Finally, they blather on for days afterwards with more reflective insights.
The event itself has little to do with the state of the union. Any citizen with access to a television set or the Internet knows the state of the union. In fact, if the hapless citizen is sitting on the living room couch without a job, the state of the union is obvious.
The speech itself is a crushing bore. Depending on the year, the President either recites a list of aspirations or delivers a blatant campaign speech. Sometimes he does both. The assembled audience, members of Congress behaving like a pack of trained seals, jumps from their seats in ecstatic applause or sits silently, depending on their partisan response to the remarks.
Like so many things in American politics, the State of the Union address is propelled by television. It would take an exceptionally secure chief executive to turn down an hour of national worship. But there is no requirement to deliver the speech at all.
The address has its root in the Constitution. Article II, devoted to the president’s duties, states simply: “He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
The first two Presidents – Washington and Adams – delivered the message in person. The third, Jefferson, dropped it. He thought it looked too much like the British monarch pontificating from the royal throne. Jefferson sent a written message to Capitol Hill, which even then we can assume the members of Congress did not read.
It took another hundred years before Woodrow Wilson decided to use the constitutional requirement to stage a live speech before Congress. The annual tradition was born, though the constitutional wording “from time to time” does not dictate a yearly message. For years after Wilson, the State of the Union message was an afterthought. Franklin Roosevelt revived it with annual appearances before Congress that were broadcast on radio.
The State of the Union message became a national event with the advent of television. Harry Truman delivered the first televised address in 1947. But the address was delivered in the daytime, assuring that no one watched it except those at home who suffered interruptions of their favorite soap operas.
Then, in 1966, Lyndon Johnson struck political pay dirt when he moved the speech to prime time. Suddenly the State of the Union message acquired the aura of a national spectacle – the strange mix of presidential grandeur and crass political performance. The prime time broadcast gave birth to the official response from the political opposition, the annoying contrivance that brings up the rear of the evening’s proceedings.
Political historians like to note the attempts by presidents to spice up the evening. Ronald Reagan invented the cameo appearance by an invited guest who sits proudly with the First Lady. He had only one, but now the First Lady’s spot in the gallery is filled with presidential supporters.
At first, the address did not take long. Washington delivered the shortest State of the Union address at a little over 1,000 words. Now the address is an oratorical marathon that seldom runs less than an hour. Our most talkative modern president, Bill Clinton, holds the record for the longest address at just short of an hour and a half.
The State of the Union address is now Washington’s most tedious relic. The president could comply with the Constitution by sending a message to Congress “from time to time” to promote his accomplishments and recommend actions. It would spare an hour of television time best devoted to a game show, situation comedy, or a good basketball game.
During the course of his career, Walker has worked in Chicago, Washington DC, New York City, and Phoenix. He served as a reporter in Chicago, a press secretary and speechwriter in Washington, and in numerous positions in New York in corporate and financial services communications.
Walker is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.