State of the Union Addresses

The Jeffersonian tom toms are beating in the Corner, so I must respond.

There are monarchical trace elements in SOTU, because there are monarchical trace elements in the presidency. It is inevitable, and often good that this should be so. They help the president assume the mask of command when that is necessary, and they put politics on an even keel.

Different presidents vary the mix, to suit their personalities and their ideologies. Jefferson submitted a written address (it was not then called SOTU) because he hated public speaking, and was not good at it. On ideological grounds he also wished to purge the presidency of what he called the monarchism of his predecessors (John Adams and Washington, though he dared not criticize Washington in public). This did not mean he was uninterested in wielding power. As his shrewdest enemies — Hamilton, John Marshall — saw, Jefferson was intent on concentrating political power in his own hands, through charisma, backstairs maneuvering, and doses of demagogy. His White House dinners were centerpieces of his strategy — small groups of congressmen, no wives, excellent food and wine, talk dominated by the host (Jefferson was a superb conversationalist). The system worked fine — except when it didn’t, in his second term, when the wheels fell off. You cannot banish power and its problems from governing. You can address them honestly — or finesse them, dishonestly.

Modern SOTUs are vulgar — I haven’t watched one in fifteen years — because modern oratory is vulgar. The speeches are hefty bags of little points, and presidents fumble through them, pulling out one after another, milking their applause lines. Reagan added the grotesque custom of shouting out to heroes in the audience. 

For more on the presidency, I recommend, as I have many times, The American Presidency, by Forrest McDonald — wise, funny, biting, and ultimately appreciative.

Richard Brookhiser — Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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