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Jewish World Review Feb. 4, 2002 / 22 Shevat 5762

Philip Terzian

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Constitutional show biz -- NEARLY everyone agrees that President Bush delivered a boffo State of the Union address the other evening. Some think it was of Periclean quality, a combination of fire, eloquence, and good old-fashioned American horse sense. Others are excited because, by more or less declaring war on Saddam Hussein, Mr. Bush transformed U.S. foreign policy.

As for me, I think it was a fine speech, delivered in the President's good-but-not-brilliant style of oratory, politically astute, containing many salutary points. No surprise there. Since I generally approve of Mr. Bush's stewardship of the presidency, I am naturally inclined to approve of the speech as well. His detractors, of course, will conclude otherwise.

And yet, I confess, I was slightly disappointed as well. Not by the President's delivery -- which was good, and keeps improving all the time -- nor by the content of the speech, although there were certain trace elements from which I would dissent. I was disappointed, instead, by the fact that the speech was delivered at all.

Let me explain. It may surprise some to learn that the State of the Union address is not a constitutional requirement, but a political tradition -- and one that the Founding Fathers might well have disdained. Many of the important amendments to the Constitution are unwritten -- the establishment of a party system, for example -- and the annual State of the Union address is clearly one of them. The Constitution declares that the President "shall, from time to time, give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union." But it says nothing about how often this will happen, what form it should take, or what kind of Information is relevant, and what is not. It is, in other words, just the sort of elastic element in our governing document that can be twisted and turned as the need arises.

For more than a century, after Thomas Jefferson, presidents satisfied the requirement by sending an annual written message to Congress. The routine character of these early State of the Union statements may be inferred from the fact that no one now recalls anything about them. It is true that the Monroe Doctrine was first proposed in James Monroe's annual message in 1823 (written, in fact, by his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams) but you can scour Bartlett's in a futile search for anything comparably memorable. Even Abraham Lincoln saved his eloquence for other occasions.

It was Woodrow Wilson who crossed the bridge into the 20th Century. In 1913 he chose to deliver his annual message to Congress in person, and no subsequent president has ever looked back. In 1965 Lyndon Johnson switched what had been a daytime event to an evening televised happening, and since then, it has become an occasion for presidents to pat themselves on the back in prime time, and spend an hour or so enumerating their various projects and poll-tested pieties.

It has become, in short, a political gesture, not a constitutional mandate. Presidents are judged arbitrarily on their physical appearance and performance behind the lectern, and the success of their administration is weighed against their capacity to think of new ways to spend the public's money, or appeal to popular sentiment. And Congress, not to be outdone, is now in on the act. If you listen to LBJ's first prime-time State of the Union address (Jan. 4, 1965), in which he outlined the Great Society, you will be surprised to hear how infrequently he was applauded. This is not because the 89th Congress disapproved of what he was saying -- far from it -- but because we have since become accustomed to prolonged, some might say incessant, interruptions for clapping and standing ovations.

The other evening President Bush pronounced the single word "jobs," and both Democrats and Republicans sprang to their feet on cue.

Most regrettable, however, was Mr. Bush's decision to honor the modern practice, begun by President Reagan, of introducing various celebrities, assorted visiting dignitaries, widows, victims, exemplars and paragons in the visitor's gallery. What used to be considered appropriate for "The Ed Sullivan Show" is now a solemn constitutional ritual.

But a ritual, it must be admitted, that is not without its comic moments. Who can forget the occasion, three years ago, when President Clinton rose to the heights (or sank to the depths, depending on your point of view) when he paid extended tribute to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, even mouthing the phrase "I love you" as he gestured reverently toward the gallery. This was immediately after Mr. Clinton had weathered a constitutional crisis grounded in conduct we need not enumerate here. Engulfed in friendly applause, Mrs. Clinton rose reluctantly from her seat, and returned her errant husband's public fealty with a steely glare from her flashing blue eyes that fairly knocked me out of the press box.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal