State of the Union

Clay Bennett cartoon, Bush at SOTU

Clay Bennett cartoon, copyright Clay Bennett. Bennett is the editorial cartoonist for the Christian Science Monitor and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his editorial cartoons there.

Tonight President Bush delivers his State of the Union speech to Congress. State of the Union speeches are increasingly the only time we get to see presidents live, and that may lead to the extreme crabbiness about the speech Ed Brayton shows over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars. It’s a Constitution-required exercise (Article II, section 3), though the prime-time television broadcast and other pomp and ceremony are not mentioned.

Section 3. 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; he may, on extraordinary occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in case of disagreement between them, with respect to the time of adjournment, he may adjourn them to such time as he shall think proper; he shall receive ambassadors and other public ministers; he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed, and shall commission all the officers of the United States.

In our history as a republic, presidents have done everything from just sending the details in a letter to Congress to the current pageant. My recollection is that Richard Nixon gave the first prime-time speech — before that the speeches were given during the business day, and not broadcast live — and that Ronald Reagan was the first president to give all of his SOTUs in the evening. (I’m very willing to correct that information if you have better details.)

And while they have occasionally made history, such as Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 SOTU (the “four freedoms”), my fondness for the events is mostly personal.

As a debater in high school and college, I mined the speeches and the commentary around them to good effect — but we debated things like foreign interventions and the military draft during the Nixon years, and crime control and other issues that got mention in the speeches (the comments at Brayton’s place remind us how Bush has frittered away past speeches).

I especially grew to love and curse the things while staffing the Senate. I first arrived in Washington in 1974, after Sen. Mike Mansfield, D-Montana, had offered a rebuttal to Nixon’s speech, and Mansfield’s staff (to which I had been assigned as intern to the Senate Democratic Policy Committee) was still answering the mail, in the days before computers really made massive mail correspondence assignments reasonably manageable.

After answering the mail and spending time on the floor of the Senate and in the House galleries, I find each following speech ike a little visit home. I well recall Reagan’s first SOTU address, when Sen. Orrin Hatch’s office got inquiries about why Sec. of Education Ted Bell was not in attendance, and what that meant.  Bell was a Utah guy; he was the last cabinet member named, and by tradition that person stays away from the SOTU in the event there should be some calamity that strikes dead everyone else in the chain of succession to the president — so someone would be left to take over; I always smile at the thought of President Bell, who would have been a good reprise of Harry Truman in many ways.

I have had tickets to the speeches, but never attended one due to work commitments. There was a time when there were seats available for anyone interested enough to show up and ask for a ticket — it’s just a dull policy speech after all. Once President Reagan started introducing guests and making a big deal out of it, those seats disappeared.

I recall with some fondness getting the text of the addresses several hours in advance so we could draft not-stupid remarks for Members of Congress to use as responses to the press after the speech. Of course, when the bosses cooperated, we also recorded the radio remarks in advance, and if we trusted the reporters we knew, we’d feed them to the local radio stations so they’d have them ready to go at the first newscast after the speech. Only once did a president change the text in a way that required us to pull back comments — and then the change was much for the better.

It used to be that the full speech was not delivered. Often there would be text at least as long as the delivered text, explaining policies on items important to Members of Congress and cabinet departments, but not interesting enough to the President’s press advisors to make the actual, delivered speech. I wonder if that is still true.

I will listen this time, even if I have to record the thing. We are at a critical time in our history, with the threat of repeating the errors of Vietnam looming before us and President Bush. Bush’s amateurish, embarrassed and embarrassing delivery will not keep me from hoping sanity will have struck somewhere.

And, of course, I’ll look to see who among the cabinet members is not there.

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