Politics & Policy

Great Caesar’s Ghost

On the nauseating spectacle that is the State of the Union address

The annual State of the Union pageant is a hideous, dispiriting, ugly, monotonous, un-American, un-republican, anti-democratic, dreary, backward, monarchical, retch-inducing, depressing, shameful, crypto-imperial display of official self-aggrandizement and piteous toadying, a black Mass during which every unholy order of teacup totalitarian and cringing courtier gathers under the towering dome of a faux-Roman temple to listen to a speech with no content given by a man with no content, to rise and to be seated as is called for by the order of worship — it is a wonder they have not started genuflecting — with one wretched representative of their number squirreled away in some well-upholstered Washington hidey-hole in order to preserve the illusion that those gathered constitute a special class of humanity without whom we could not live.

It’s the most nauseating display in American public life — and I write that as someone who has just returned from a pornographers’ convention.

It’s worse than the Oscars.

#ad#The national self-debasement begins well before the speech is under way. Members of Congress — supposedly free men and women serving as the elected representatives of the citizens of a self-governing republic — arrive hours early, camping out like spotty-faced adolescents waiting for Justin Bieber tickets, in the hope of staking out some prime center-aisle real estate that they might be seen on television, if only for a second or two, being greeted by the national pontifex maximus as he makes his stately procession into the chamber.

When the moment comes and the sergeant-at-arms utters the sacred words — “Mr. Speaker! The president of the United States!” — the chamber will erupt, as though the assembled have entirely forgotten that the mysterious entity that is the object of this curious act of national worship only a decade ago was an obscure legislator in a destitute and corrupt state, a man whose most prominent legislative accomplishment was the passage of a bill requiring police to videotape confessions in potential capital cases — in a state in which there were as a practical matter no potential capital cases. (Illinois had not carried out an execution during the century in which the law was passed and was on its way toward abolishing capital punishment categorically.)

But they will listen, rapt, and the media mandarins afterward will evaluate each promise with great sobriety, ignoring entirely that the central promise made during the same charlatan’s first State of the Union address was subsequently labeled “Lie of the Year” by the great man’s own frustrated admirers. That an entire class of people should be so enthusiastic about being lied to, serially, is perplexing.

And then there are the human props. This year’s victim du jour is one Jason Collins, an aging professional basketball player boasting more than $32 million in lifetime earnings who has publicly affirmed his homosexuality. For this act of courage/oversharing, he is to be seated in the first lady’s box. That there is such a thing as the first lady’s box is lamentable in and of itself. There is a royal box at London’s Royal Opera, complete with a private, Victorian-style toilet. And while the antiquated royal toilet may be a perfect metaphor for the State of the Union festivities, this is a republic, not a monarchy, and honors and offices are not accrued through marriage. Michelle Obama is a currently unemployed former part-time hospital administrator and mother to two lovely daughters. That is admirable enough, but she is a figure of public importance through marriage only, which is to say, properly a figure of curiosity, not of policy. She is not a royal consort, and proximity to her in seating should not constitute a message about the direction of government. (Even Lady Macbeth was known to dispense with such pretensions when pressed: “Stand not upon the order of your going,” she advises her dinner guests.)

There will be other totems, of course: victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, the District of Columbia’s teacher of the year (cf. “tallest building in Wichita”), and a kid who built an “extreme marshmallow cannon” for a White House science fair — an act of engineering that almost certainly would have gotten him kicked out of any D.C. teacher of the year’s classroom, if not imprisoned.

The State of the Union has not always been a grotesque spectacle. George Washington delivered his briefing in person, but he was dealing with a self-respecting Congress that understood itself to be his equal in government. When he wanted the Senate’s advice and consent for an Indian treaty, he visited the chamber personally to seek it — and was so put off by the questioning and debate to which he was subjected that he vowed never to put himself through that again. It was an excellent idea. Thomas Jefferson, ever watchful against monarchical pretensions in the federal apparatus, discontinued the practice of delivering the State of the Union in person before Congress, instead submitting a written report. For a blessed century, Jefferson’s example was followed, and, despite civil war and the occasional financial panic, the nation thrived without an ersatz Caesar to rule over it.

#page#

It will come as no surprise that the imperial model was reinstated by Woodrow Wilson, Princeton’s answer to Benito Mussolini and the most dangerous man ever elected to the American presidency, a would-be dictator who attempted to criminalize the act of criticizing the state, dismissed the very idea of individual rights as “a lot of nonsense,” and described his vision of the presidency as effectively unlimited (“The President is at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can”). A big man needs a big show, and it is to Wilson’s totalitarian tastes that we owe the modern pageant.

The next Republican president should remember why his party is called the Republican party and put a stop to this.

#ad#The State of the Union is only one example of the deepening, terrifying cult of the state that has taken root here. Many heads of state — and some royals, for that matter — fly on commercial aircraft. Presidents of the Swiss federation and members of the federal council receive . . . an unlimited train pass. They have occasional access to a Cessna maintained by the air force, but are known to use mass transit — just like the people they are elected to represent. An American president stages a Roman triumph every time he heads out for a round of golf. The president’s household costs well more than $1 billion annually to operate. The president’s visage is more ubiquitous than was Vladimir Lenin’s in his prime, his reach Alexandrian, his sense of immortality (they call it “legacy”) pharaonic. Washington has become a deeply weird and alien place, a Renaissance court with armored sedans and hundred-million-dollar paydays.

It’s expensive maintaining an imperial class, but money isn’t really the object here, and neither is the current occupant of the White House, unlikeable as he is. Whether it’s Barack Obama or some subsequent pathological megalomaniac, Republican or Democrat, the increasingly ceremonial and quasi-religious aspect of the presidency is unseemly. It is profane. It is unbecoming of us as a people, and it has transformed the presidency into an office that can be truly attractive only to men who are unfit to hold it.

George Washington showed the world that men do not need a king. We, his heirs, have allowed the coronation of something much worse.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review.

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