Opinion: State of the Union becomes grotesque

February 17, 2013


In the 12 months we have to steel ourselves for the next State of the Union spectacle, let us count the ways that this spawn of democratic Caesarism — presidency-worship — has become grotesque. It would be the most embarrassing ceremony in the nation’s civic liturgy were the nation still capable of being embarrassed by its puerile faith in presidential magic.

The Constitution laconically requires only that the president “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.” Nothing requires “from time to time” to be construed as “every damn year.” Informing and recommending need not involve today’s tawdry ritual of wishful thinking by presidents unhinged from political reality, and histrionics by their audiences. And must we be annually reminded that all presidents think that everything they want is “necessary and expedient”?

Some of the blame for this yearly night of nonsense goes to Ronald Reagan. Most, however, goes to Woodrow Wilson. Reagan, who loved entertainment, pioneered the regrettable practice of stocking the House gallery with (usually) admirable people. Wilson, who loved himself, had, as professors often do, a theory, which caused him to reverse Thomas Jefferson’s wholesome reticence. 

When the Founding generation was developing customs and manners appropriate to a republic, George Washington and John Adams made the mistake of going to Congress to do their constitutional duty of informing and recommending. Jefferson, however, disliked the sound of his voice — such an aversion is a vanishingly rare presidential virtue — and considered it monarchical for the executive to lecture the legislature, the lofty instructing underlings. So he sent written thoughts to Capitol Hill, a practice good enough for subsequent presidents until Wilson in 1913 delivered his message orally, pursuant to the progressives’ belief in inspirational and tutelary presidents.  

It is beyond unseemly, it is anti-constitutional for senior military officers and, even worse, Supreme Court justices, to attend these political rallies where, with metronomic regularity, legislators of the president’s party leap to their feet to whinny approval of every bromide and vow. Members of the other party remain theatrically stolid, thereby provoking brow-furrowing punditry about why John Boehner did not rise (to genuflect? salute? swoon?) when Barack Obama mentioned this or that. Tuesday night, the justices, generals and admirals, looking as awkward as wallflowers at a prom, at least stayed seated.

Except for Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Sam Alito, who stayed away. They missed a clunker of a speech, although the tedium was not much worse than usual, and was redeemed by clarifying three things.

First, Obama’s declaration that nothing in his long list of proposed spending “should” — should? — “increase our deficit by a single dime” means there should be commensurate tax increases. Second, now that he has proclaimed that government “must keep the promises we’ve already made,” only the uneducable can still believe he will consider entitlement reforms. Third, by saying spending cuts under the sequester would be “harsh” and would “devastate” domestic programs, he made applesauce of those two words: The cuts would remove only $85 billion from this year’s almost $3.6 trillion budget, and over a decade they would cut just $1.2 trillion from projected spending of $46 trillion. And spending this year would still be well above the post-1945 norm as a percentage of gross domestic product. 

Although Obama is a self-proclaimed respecter of science, he does not stoop to empiricism. Understandably. Data are unkind to his assertion that climate change is causing storms to become more severe and drought to become more prevalent. Measured by “accumulated cyclone energy,” hurricane and other tropical cyclone activity is at a three-decade low, and Nature journal reports that globally “there has been little change in drought over the past 60 years.”

Wilson’s stroke prevented him from delivering the State of the Union orally in 1919 and 1920, but Warren Harding, not known for a strong sense of propriety, continued the deplorable practice in 1921 and 1922. Calvin Coolidge did so in 1923, four months after becoming president, but not a second time. Wilson’s practice was, however, made the norm by the man who had first come to Washington as Wilson’s assistant secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt.

State of the Union addresses are now integral to the apotheosis of the presidency. If government is going to be omniprovident, modern presidents are going to be omnipresent, and politics is going to be infantile.

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Orwell 5 years, 3 months ago

Seriously, George? Where was your concern-trolling when Dubya was busy in his SOTU lying us into a tragic, devastating war? Is it possible – actually, is it not certain – that your present jeremiad is due not to your scorn for the medium, but for the current messenger?

verity 5 years, 3 months ago

Or perhaps the onset of dementia?

Or just running out of ideas.

Ken Lassman 5 years, 3 months ago

Verity, you may be onto something. George's curmudgeonly ways are not satisfied with the politics of today: he's now reaching back to Washington and Adams to cast aspersions, raking Harding, Wilson, Coolidge and even Reagan over the coals on the way back to the present in order to excoriate the universe for not seeing all things from his dyspeptic perspective.

yourworstnightmare 5 years, 3 months ago

In just a few short months, the GOP went from "deficits don't matter" to the deficit-abhorring tea party, coinciding with a democratic president taking office.

Will, like others in the GOP, pick their historical morality tales as it suits the expediency of the attack of the moment.

Katara 5 years, 3 months ago

George Will already jumped the shark when he wrote a column decrying the downfall of civilization because of denim.

verity 5 years, 3 months ago

I well remember that one, Katara. He did the impossible---except for one poster, everybody on this board united against him. Denim---the great leveler. Maybe that's why he hates it so much.

fiddleback 5 years, 3 months ago

Actually, dislike for dungarees creeping into the workplace is the one opinion I share with him (but I wasn't that one guy). Jeans, esp. pre-distressed, can be such a hilarious affectation. Now men strut around wearing dark indigo jeans paired with sport coats. Sorry, a primped businessman with pretenses of looking authentically rugged/blue-collar is just stupid, like in the 90's when everyone ran out and bought SUV's mostly for the look of them, with little to no intention of camping or off-roading...but then if George had his way, I'm sure belts would be abandoned so that women could squeeze back into corsets and men could again strap on suspenders...

Katara 5 years, 3 months ago

I really don't have an opinion one way or another about jeans in the workplace but George is hardly one to give fashion advice.

verity 5 years, 3 months ago

Oh, my!

Now I have to go clean the coffee off the screen.

fiddleback 5 years, 3 months ago

"Every damn year" ... I feel the same way about seeing George's columns every damn Sunday. I guess I still read his rants because the only thing funnier than a cranky old fool spouting nonsense is one who lacks any self-awareness, plus one who nurses nostalgic pretensions like he has a monopoly on the Truth about the Good Old Days.

'Twill be an sad day when bitter ol' Mr. Bowtie finally bites the dust.

bearded_gnome 5 years, 3 months ago

wow, looks like George must be right on target judging by all the liberal whine with their cheese!

Orwell, no evidence GWB was lying about that, and many of your leftists voted for the war against Iraq, including John Kerry, and I think Hilary did too.

Orwell 5 years, 3 months ago

I'd say the judgment of history is in, and it doesn't favor the neocons' puppet. You blame the victims of the lie instead of the liars.

bearded_gnome 5 years, 3 months ago

Although Obama is a self-proclaimed respecter of science, he does not stoop to empiricism. Understandably. Data are unkind to his assertion that climate change is causing storms to become more severe and drought to become more prevalent. Measured by “accumulated cyclone energy,” hurricane and other tropical cyclone activity is at a three-decade low, and Nature journal reports that globally “there has been little change in drought over the past 60 years.”

---facts are a difficult thing for liberals, indeed. and now their high priest of the church of global warming, Algore, even sold out for $100million of petrodollars! while he's been making millions hand over fist on greenie wheenie indulgeances, so-called carbon credits.

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