Watching the Divide Widen
By Stephen Tuttle | Feb. 16, 2019
There was a time when it was somewhat of a special occasion. The majority of the country gathered in front of their televisions and watched the president deliver the State of the Union Address.
If you liked the president, you thought the speech was great, and if you didn't, not so much. But there was a certain elegance to it all. The guest gallery included unifying figures nearly everyone could admire. Perhaps a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient or someone who had accomplished some remarkable civic good. Maybe even a civilian pilot who managed to land a commercial jetliner in the Hudson River without a single loss of life.
Not anymore. It's now an annual Theater of the Absurd and Horrible.
Let's back up and see how this started.
Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, while enumerating presidential powers and duties, says, “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 ... .”
You'll note it does not require a speech, does not require it be given annually, does not specify a time at all; just give Congress the information.
George Washington was the first to turn it into a speech in 1790, though it wasn't officially called the State of the Union Address until 1947. A speech was the rare exception, and from 1801 to 1913, there were no State of the Union speeches at all, just written reports. They read a bit more like an annual financial report than a political document, though politics is always present in every presidential speech or report. Altogether, there have been 130 written versions and 96 speeches.
Woodrow Wilson restored the bad habit of turning an annual report into a speech in 1914. Once mass media emerged, the speech became an event, then a spectacle, and now it's more like a carnival.
There are several problems, not least of which is that so few presidents are any good at delivering a scripted speech.
Among the modern presidents, John F. Kennedy was pretty good and had the benefit of excellent speechwriters. Nearly all the rest have been borderline awful, though Richard Nixon was good enough to at least be brief. Bill Clinton thought he was great, but he tried too hard and was always dreadfully long-winded. He holds the current record for longest State of the Union, at 89 minutes.
Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan were notable exceptions. Obama was electric on the campaign trail, and he had an interesting cadence in scripted speeches that was engaging. Reagan, the former actor, was the best of the lot. He knew exactly when to pause, when to nod, when to be self-deprecating; his delivery was masterful, at least in his first term. It helped that he had Peggy Noonan and other writers who knew how to write precisely within his comfort zone.
President Trump, who campaigned being proudly disdainful of scripted speeches, delivers them accordingly. His speech was written more eloquently than his normal rally riffs, but it's obvious he's uncomfortably restrained by written words.
(Even Abraham Lincoln, the greatest presidential speechwriter ever, wasn't such a great speech giver. The Times of London said of his Gettysburg Address delivery, “Anything more dull and commonplace would be difficult to produce ... .”)
Then there's the content and how it now contrasts with the reality of the assembled members of Congress and their gallery guests.
Every State of the Union Address we've ever heard makes some plea for unity. But now it's to an audience hopelessly divided.
As President Trump droned on for 82 minutes, he might as well have built his wall down the middle of the House chamber and extended it into the gallery.
Democrats over there, Republicans over there. One side stands and applauds while the other sits on their hands. Then the other stands and applauds while the first sits on their hands. Dress the women members in white to highlight the differences with the other side.
Gallery guests are now divisive political props in a celebration of competing tragedies. One side brings in a family whose loved one was murdered by an illegal immigrant, so the other side gives us the parents of a student murdered at school by an American citizen. Every guest is now a symbol of some issue that widens the gaps between us.
The speech is an anachronism, but no self-respecting president is going to pass up the opportunity to get on prime-time television with all the attendant pomp and attention given the State of the Union Address. That's a shame.
The words of unity are easily forgotten, what we saw less so: a divided nation being driven further apart by the people we hoped would bring us together.