“A speech from the throne,” Thomas Jefferson called it. And as Washington waits for President Bush’s sixth State of the Union address Tuesday night, the monarchical metaphor seems as apt as ever.
In recent weeks, the president has reserved the right to open Americans’ mail and, in the face of an electoral rebuke of his Iraq policy, announced that he’s throwing more than 20,000 more American soldiers into the midst of that country’s burgeoning civil war.
Jefferson’s primary complaint was that our first two presidents chose to deliver their annual messages in person before both houses of Congress — a practice he regarded as “an English habit, tending to familiarize the public with monarchical ideas.”
But even Jefferson could not have imagined what the modern ritual of the State of the Union would become: a passel of outsized promises and demands on the public pocketbook, greeted with repeated standing ovations from members of a coordinate branch.
Last year, the speech was interrupted 67 times by frenetic applause, as Bush promised, among other things, to teach our children well, heal the sick, move America “beyond a petroleum-based economy” and “lead freedom’s advance” around the world.
In contrast, early presidents often struck a note of modesty and self-restraint. After his third State of the Union, George Washington wrote that “motives of delicacy” had deterred him “from introducing any topic which relates to legislative matters, lest it should be suspected that he wished to influence the question before it.”
Jefferson made the ritual still more humble by delivering his annual message to Congress in writing.
For 112 years, presidents conformed to Jefferson’s example, until populist pedagogue Woodrow Wilson delivered his first annual message in person.
“I am sorry to see revived the old Federalistic custom of speeches from the throne,” one senator lamented. “I regret this cheap and tawdry imitation of English royalty.”
Yet Wilson’s habit caught on. Most presidents in the 20th century delivered the message in person. And in 1966, Lyndon Johnson moved the speech to prime-time viewing hours, the better to reach a national audience.
Thus the State of the Union has settled into its familiar, modern incarnation: a laundry list of policy demands packaged in pomp and circumstance. And as our presidents have grown more imperial, the tone of the annual message has grown more imperious.
In a 2002 article in Presidential Studies Quarterly, political scientist Elvin T. Lim tracked the evolution of presidential rhetoric through two centuries of State of the Union addresses. Lim notes “an increasing lack of humility” on the part of the president, as well as fewer and fewer references to the Constitution, which were quite prevalent in the 19th century.
By the late 20th century, it was all about the children, with “Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton [making] 260 of the 508 references to children in the entire speech database, invoking the government’s responsibility to and concern for children in practically every public policy area.”
Granted, Washington did mention children in his seventh annual message, protesting “the frequent destruction of innocent women and children” by Indian marauders. But modern references to children have a different tenor, as in last year’s speech, when Bush touted the “Helping America’s Youth Initiative” and called on “caring adults” to give “special attention to children who lack direction and love.”
Is there any area of American life beyond presidential purview? Perhaps not, if the minutiae of the modern State of the Union is any indication: Bush used his 2004 address to urge major-league baseball and football to “get tough, and to get rid of steroids now.”
Washington most often referred to the office he held as that of “chief magistrate.” Modern presidents tend to prefer the title “commander in chief” and at times seem to forget that it only makes them commander of the U.S. armed forces, not commander of the nation as a whole.
Indeed, Bush believes that his powers as commander in chief are broad enough to allow him to tap Americans’ phones without warrants and imprison citizens without trial.
The administration has made clear its belief that Congress has no authority to begin winding down a disastrous war. When asked whether the midterm elections would have any effect on the administration’s war policy, Vice President Dick Cheney replied curtly that “the president’s made clear what his objective is: It’s a victory in Iraq, and it’s full speed ahead on that basis.”
On Tuesday, we’re likely to get yet another defense of that boundless view of presidential power. Friends of the Constitution won’t be applauding.
Perhaps it’s too much to expect a revival of the humble republican custom initiated by Jefferson. But when Tuesday’s ritual is done, one hopes that Congress can set about the business of reining in an imperial presidency.