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November 17th, 2017

Insight

A big night for the choir

Wesley Pruden

By Wesley Pruden

Published Jan. 20, 2015

The annual State of the Union might not be an occasion for the president to preach to the choir, but it's an opportunity for the choir to catch 40 winks. Neither the soprano nor tenor will miss anything.

President Obama doesn't have a choice. The Constitution requires him to "give to Congress information about the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." The Founders didn't anticipate Barack Obama. If they had they would have commanded him to move tonight's State of the Union to Halloween.

The president has been leaking dribs and drabs of this year's "information" for days, and some of the dribs and drabs would be enough to frighten ghosts and scare goblins out of their sepulchers if anyone took any of it seriously, but no one does.

The tax riot is the president's scheme to raise $320 billion in new taxes, raising the tax on capital gains, and eliminate tax breaks for children inheriting their parents' savings. "Is this for real?" asked an incredulous Bob Schieffer of Dan Pfeiffer, a White House aide, on CBS' "Face the Nation." Mr. Pfeiffer returned a sheepish smile, as if to say he had not come to town on the turnip truck, but the president is indeed real, and so is his tax riot.

He won't get his new taxes, but he'll make his State of the Union speech memorable, no small accomplishment. The speeches are nearly always forgettable, unless there's someone brave enough in the audience to tell the president "you lie!" as a South Carolina Republican congressman told Mr. Obama in 2009.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, after listening to President Obama insert a long diatribe against the court's Citizens United decision, predicting it would inundate Kansas in a tidal wave and put Mars and Venus on a collision course, was caught on camera mouthing the words: "Not true." George W. Bush identified Iran, Iraq and North Korea as "the axis of evil" in one of his eight State of the Union speeches. Bill Clinton promised in 2000 that "the era of big government is over," and Richard Nixon pronounced the Watergate scandal over in 1973. "One year of Watergate is enough." Enough for him, no doubt. Six months later he resigned to avoid impeachment.

But some presidents have delivered real goods in their State of the Union speeches. James Monroe set down the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, a warning to the European powers that the Western Hemisphere was for the Americas, so stay out. James K. Polk set off the great California Gold Rush in 1848 with the word that "an abundance of gold" had been discovered at Sutter's Mill "that would scarcely command belief." There went the neighborhood, and eventually San Francisco would be painted a deep shade of lavender.

The Founders didn't say the State of the Union message required a speech, but George Washington delivered the first one to a joint session of Congress in 1790. A decade later Thomas Jefferson decided not to deliver the State of the Union in person because it sounded too "monarchical," like the "Speech from the Throne" in Old Blighty. For a long time afterward presidents put it in the mail.

Woodrow Wilson, still at heart the college president (Princeton), revived the speech in 1913. Except for Jimmy Carter, who sent his written speech to Congress in 1981, presidents have thought that "speaking from the throne" sounded about right. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to call his remarks the State of the Union, Calvin Coolidge was the first to make a radio broadcast of it, Harry S. Truman was the first to make the speech on television, and Bubba was the first on the World Wide Web.

Distinctions all, but through the years the speeches have grown from dull to duller, leaving it to the likes of Joe Wilson and Samuel Alito to keep the audience awake. But not always. Abraham Lincoln, unsettled by the midterm congressional campaigns of 1862, used his State of the Union in 1863 to set down a "more moderate, gradual emancipation" than in the Emancipation Proclamation he made only 10 weeks earlier. He was trying to mollify if not satisfy angry Democrats. That woke up everybody.

Politicians of much smaller bore have adopted and adapted the custom, with States of the State, States of the City, and in the nation's capital even the State of the District. Somewhere a ward boss, probably in Chicago, is preparing his State of the Precinct Address. But nobody does a tax riot like Barack Obama.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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