A non-verbal State of the Union.
There are a few people who would normally be expected to attend the State of the Union speech who will be passing up the chance out of disgust with “President” Donald Trump.
We have a better idea. Let’s get rid of the speech altogether.
George Washington and John Adams read their messages to Congress in person. Thomas Jefferson simply sent a written report. His example held all through the 1800s into the 20th century when Woodrow Wilson went to Congress in person. So did Calvin Coolidge. Then Herbert Hoover sent his message in writing. Franklin Roosevelt spoke to Congress in person and it has been that way ever since.
Getting rid of a spoken message would help reform the State of the Union, which has become a mess in recent years under modern public relations techniques. Academy Award presentations are sometimes more dignified.
First of all, presidents have become too cowardly to tell the public hard and unhappy truths. We are a long way from John Kennedy’s “I feel I must inform the Congress that our analyses over the last 10 days make it clear that—in each of the principal areas of crisis—the tide of events has been running out and time has not been our friend.”
A good example was Bill Clinton’s first State of the Union message. He and the country faced very difficult problems. He had inherited the largest deficit to that time, and yet he did not call on the public to share sacrifice or even understand the magnitude of the challenge facing government. Instead, he sugarcoated everything.
Another reason to get rid of the personal appearances before Congress of presidents is to put a stop to the “guests” in the balcony sitting with the presidential spouse. The State of the Union is supposed to be a business occasion, not an awards ceremony. Getting the public to focus on what they need to deal with, and possibly pay for, needs to be front and center with no distractions. The guests in the balcony are one more way to distract the public from hard truths.
Then there are the members of Congress who want to be famous overnight. “You lie,” yelled a South Carolina congressmember at President Obama, later apologizing and being censured by the House.
Members of the congressional houses should not invite chief executives to Congress. Instead, rely on the language in the Constitution: “He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
A written message will force all players to focus on the words, the message, the meaning, not on the bells, whistles and circus the event has become. It will also give the chief executive less of an ability to avoid the issues and the problems the country faces.
It was the method Lincoln used. Let’s return to it.