Politics & Policy

The State of the Union Ceremony Is a Breach of Small-R Republican Manners

President Obama at the podium for his 2014 address. (Pool/Getty)

President Barack Obama has promised to make an unconventional State of the Union speech tonight, and it is a safe bet to assume that by “unconventional State of the Union” he means “conventional campaign speech,” heavy with his trademark alloy of intellectual shallowness and risibly inflated self-regard. In 2008 it was “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” but we just can’t wait for them to leave.

Here’s a better idea for an unconventional State of the Union address: Don’t have one.

My detestation of the unseemly spectacle that is the State of the Union address is something that I have aired at some length and, having expended my store of relevant vituperative adjectives, I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that it has ceased being a republican update on the condition of the country and has turned instead into a monarchical Speech from the Throne. Its influence is . . . well, here’s an observation: I know a lady who very much wants to have a child, and she has an app that counts down to her moment of maximum potential fertility; Wolf Blitzer has the same thing for the pending State of the Union address, counting down from days before the cursed event. That’s horrifying, and I’m embarrassed for Blitzer, for CNN, for America, and for my species.

It has ceased being a republican update on the condition of the country and has turned instead into a monarchical Speech from the Throne.

George Washington, who had excellent republican manners but retained a certain sense of ceremony, fulfilled his constitutional duty to give Congress an annual update by making a speech before the two houses. Thomas Jefferson, who was a bit more French in his republicanism, simply sent Congress a written report, and that was how it was done until the rise of Woodrow Wilson, the puffed-up miscreant who attempted to establish a kind of Bismarckian autocracy in these United States with the royalist pomp and ceremony to match. It has been downhill since then, with presidents ranging from Ronald Reagan — no stranger to showmanship — to the current milk-livered clotpole leading the event’s devolution from bad theater to third-rate circus.  

As a question of taste, the State of the Union is indefensible. But there is more than the aesthetic objection.

RELATED: Great Caesar’s Ghost: On the Nauseating Spectacle That Is the State of the Union Address

We as a nation have for some time been on a dangerous trajectory toward autocracy, with the prerogatives, powers, and privileges of the legislative branch — the lawmaking branch — steadily hijacked by the presidency, under presidents of both parties. This partly has been the result of abject congressional cowardice, with legislators punting the details of lawmaking to the executive with vague legislation simply empowering executive-branch bureaucrats to make rules. Often it has been the result of active executive predation, e.g., President Obama’s habit of justifying illegal executive overreach by complaining that “Congress won’t act, so I must.” “Congress won’t act” is just another way of saying “Congress won’t do what I want,” and Barack Obama, the great constitutional scholar, doesn’t seem to understand that refusing to do what the president wants is a big part of what Congress is there for. We need three equal, legitimate branches of government, each functioning in its proper constitutional role — or we’ll end up with that Bismarckian autocracy that Wilson wanted.

Or worse.

#share#A big part of the reason for the collapse of American politics onto the single point of the presidency is the unhappy fact that people are — forgive me for pointing it out — kind of lazy and a little bit stupid. Congress, with its hundreds of players, committees and subcommittees, and complicated processes is difficult to follow, and difficult to understand. Lyndon Johnson made his career not on charm or brainpower (though he had thoroughly corrupt concentrations of both) but on having mastered procedural arcana, becoming, in biographer Robert Caro’s famous phrase, “Master of the Senate.” That’s a hard thing to do if you are lucky enough to be one of the people with a decent full-time job as we approach Recovery Summer VIII. But the president is just the one guy. Anybody can have a plausible opinion about one guy. We’d had a unitary executive in the public mind long before that phrase made its debut in constitutional law.

Centralizing the state in the person of one man is dangerous and foolish.

Centralizing the state in the person of one man is dangerous and foolish. The governing of the United States of America, and the management of our relationship with the rest of the world, presents questions of enormous complexity, far beyond the abilities of one man, or one man and his team, even if we imagined a president and a cabinet full of saintly super-geniuses embodying the best traits of Albert Einstein, Adam Smith, and Mother Teresa. (Which the current gang . . . doesn’t.) Men are corruptible, and more prone to error than to admitting error. This has been known for a long time, which is why legislatures were created, and why our government is divided against itself — three branches, with the legislative branch further subdivided.

Presidents come and go. But the presidency has become a problem.

RELATED: The Long-Cursed Response to the State of the Union Address 

Senator Ted Cruz is said to have memorized the Constitution. That’s a neat trick, but there is something that we can say about him that is even more impressive: He has internalized, deeply, the American constitutional order, its beautiful machinery and delicate balances. A great professor of mine used to press us undergraduate peons to live up to the scholarly standard expressed by a Hebrew phrase meaning “to have eaten the book,” and Ted Cruz is a man who has eaten the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and much else. No president is much inclined to reduce the power and the status of the presidency per se, but in my mind the great virtue of Cruz’s candidacy is that one can imagine his doing that as president. Senator Cruz does not suffer from an excess of humility, but he has a mind to understand why the presidency needs some. The current president is a lost cause, but the presidency is not.

#related#Senator Cruz is not attending this year’s State of the Union address. He ought to go one step further and promise that, if elected president, he won’t make one. He can deliver Congress a written report. He could post it on Facebook, for all I care, “majesty of the office” be damned. We could do with a good deal less “majesty” in Washington and with an infusion of honesty and competence.

Somebody should kill this hideous and depraved dog-and-pony show. If not the next Republican president, then the speaker of the House, who has it within his power to simply decline to proffer an invitation to address Congress. It would be a small and mainly symbolic — which is not to say insignificant — move toward restoring the proper balance in our government.

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