If we want to restore government to its constitutionally prescribed dimensions, we can begin by taking a small but important step: Stop the deification of the presidency in the annual State of the Union address. The next president should communicate the message in writing, as was done from the presidency of Thomas Jefferson to that of William Howard Taft. The address has become a combination of TV reality show, celebrity worship, quasi-religious ritual, and circus side-show. It has all the trappings of one of those Cecil B. DeMille movie extravaganzas of happy memory, lacking only a bevy of scantily clad nubile maidens, clouds of incense, 100 blaring trumpets, 50 oxen ready for sacrifice, and a few thousand extras chanting hymns to Moloch. Is this what the Founders were thinking of when they wrote that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union”? I don’t think so.
Consider the grand procession that begins the ceremony. The president makes his majestic progress down the center aisle to shouts of adoration, like a conquering Caesar. Members of Congress try to shake his hand, as if he, like the British kings of old, had the gift of curing diseases (pork-barrel addiction?) by his touch. When he finally arrives at the rostrum, one almost expects Congress and its assembled guests, all standing, to break into the “Hallelujah Chorus” as the chief high priest, er, executive, stands there smiling, waving, and pointing as the thunderous applause goes on and on and on.
And all this occurs before he has spoken a word. Then the real degradation begins. The president says something. Those on one side of the aisle rise as one, applauding and cheering. Those on the other side sit in petulance until shame or a desire to look bipartisan on television brings them to their feet. Then everyone sits again. The president says a few more words and the pattern of up-and-down continues, as if the members of Congress were being jerked around like puppets on strings, which, in a way, they are.
What is the public-policy purpose of all these gyrations, bumps, and grinds on the part of members of Congress? Where is the sober, serious, one might say republican virtue that should animate lawmakers when respectfully attending to a communication from a president?
And then there are the Supreme Court members, sitting in the front row while the president talks about issues they may have to decide on. What in the name of the Constitution are they doing there? Why aren’t they across the street, back in chambers, reading up on Blackstone?
What does this annual apotheosis of the president say about the idea of three equal branches of government? Why should the chief executive, for this one night, be treated as a godling? Under our system of government, the office of the president deserves respect, but it is a respect that the members of the other two branches should show to the president as equals, not as participants in a spectacle designed to make him first among equals.
– William F. Gavin is a former assistant to Sen. James L. Buckley.