Lewis Gould: Abolish the State of the Union Address





It is time to end the meaningless annual ritual of the State of the Union address. What began as a yearly survey of the nation's condition has deteriorated into a frivolous moment of political theater and continuous campaigning.

On Tuesday night, President Bush, like his recent predecessors, will play his part in the gaudy spectacle of ballyhoo and hype that the State of the Union has become. From a Rocky-style entrance of the president through a gantlet of applauding solons to the introduction of mini-celebrities carefully situated in the gallery, the prime-time extravaganza will have all the spontaneity of -- and about as much meaning as -- a televised Hollywood awards ceremony.

More like an acceptance speech at a national convention than a candid review of the nation's situation at the outset of a new year, the State of the Union has evolved into a semi-imperial speech from the throne. In the process, the event has lost most of its reason for taking place. Congress and the president have better things to do than to be part of these empty festivities.

When the Framers of the Constitution directed the president "from time to time to give the Congress Information of the State of the Union," they envisioned a serious report from the chief executive that would enlighten lawmakers and the public about the nation's needs. It didn't have to be at a particular time of year. For more than a century, when presidents transmitted their annual messages in writing to Capitol Hill, they felt compelled to review the work of the Cabinet departments, examine pressing social problems and recommend solutions. In most cases, these documents were anything but lively. A century ago, for example, Theodore Roosevelt devoted thousands of words in his message to railroad regulation, immigration, copyright laws, criminal justice and the civil service, among other topics. Newspapers published his annual message in full and political debate followed in Congress and across the country about what the president wanted to accomplish.

In 1913, Woodrow Wilson became the first president since John Adams to deliver the presidential message in person, and the older style of elaborate written reviews of the State of the Union began to give way to shorter remarks tailored first for the congressional audience and later for radio listeners. But after World War II, with the emergence of television, the possibilities for dramatizing the State of the Union proved irresistible. Holding it in prime time for the larger television audience was a logical move; the first evening address since World War II came in 1965 with Lyndon B. Johnson. On just two subsequent occasions -- Richard Nixon in 1973 and Jimmy Carter in 1981 -- presidents reverted to the 19th-century custom of simply sending a written message to Congress. (Carter, having just lost to Reagan, submitted a 76-page report in writing and gave a shorter televised farewell from the Oval Office.) The major innovations in the direction of a media spectacular came in the 1980s and 1990s. Ronald Reagan pioneered the use of heroes, prominent Americans and symbolic figures who were seated in the visitors' gallery of the House. Soon the composition of this living tableau became as nuanced as 5electing a jury or arranging a beauty pageant....



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