The State of the Union address is an annual political tradition most people await with the same eager anticipation they normally reserve for tax audits, raking snow, or hooking up a wireless network in their house. It’s also one of the few actual events that is constitutionally required of the President, along with appointing federal judges, negotiating foreign treaties, and pretending to cry on Arbor Day.
However, the constitution does not specifically state how the President needs to deliver the address. The first few presidents directly addressed Congress. Thomas Jefferson, however, decided that personally delivering the State of the Union address was a bit too monarchical, so just wrote the thing down and made Aaron Burr do it and, encouraged by his decision, sauntered home to Monticello to conjugate with Sally Hemmings, in what has to be the logical conclusion of the perfect manifestation of agrarian republicanism.
Woodrow Wilson, however, reversed this tradition, thereby reinforcing his reputation as the biggest wuss to ever hold the office of the Presidency and, not coincidentally, the only President to ever had been officially given a purple nurple by an act of Congress. Pretty much every other President since has also delivered the speech in person. There have been very few outstanding speeches, however; most speeches are simply laundry lists of items that the President plans to propose in an entirely different form within the next few months, all of which will immediately die in Congress.
This is not always the case, of course. For example, Jimmy Carter, in response to the nation’s growing energy crisis, once proposed in a state of the union address a comprehensive plan that would subsidize alternate sources of energy, reduce dependence on foreign oil, and require an increase in fuel efficiency by the automobile industry. This proposal did not die in congress as expected. It did, however, go through the normal procedure of being altered by representatives and senators, of course, in order for it to get passed. In this case it eventually became the Oil Production Increase and Natural Gas Subsidy Giveaway And By The Way Did You Honestly Think That Was Going To Pass You Peanut Growing Moron Act of 1978.
There are other major developments in the State of the Union address as well. Ronald Reagan stood defiantly in front of a Democratic congress and declared that the government was not selling arms for hostages even though the government was selling arms for hostages. Lyndon Johnson stood definitely before a Democratic congress and declared that the war in Vietnam was succeeding even though the war in Vietnam was not really succeeding. And Bill Clinton famously stood defiantly before a Republican congress and declared that the era of big government was over, even though the era of big government, sadly, had just begun.
There were some historic moments for this year’s State of the Union address, of course. Instead of Dennis Hastert, who by all accounts died in 1998, sitting behind the president, it was Nancy Pelosi, the new Speaker of the House. (And thank goodness that title is gender-neutral, or we’d still be hearing about how they had to change all the stationary in Washington to reflect “Mistress of the House” or some less sadomasochistic-sounding title.) Pelosi took the recognition with relative good humor, even introducing the President without referring to the fact that he kills puppy dogs for fun and likes to drive his pickup truck over abortion doctors after they’ve served their eighteenth tour of duty in Tikrit. Her programmers seemed to have missed fixing a bug before they charged her up, though, causing her to blink every time she existed.
Bush’s State of the Union address, of course, is no different than those before him. He, too, proposed a bill to increase energy production and encourage conservation, a proposal that must be pretty good because he’s proposed it every year for the past six years. He also proposed an immigration bill that he presented as a sensible plan marked with neither “animosity nor amnesty,” a bold claim since the plan includes plenty equal doses of both animosity and amnesty though, one suspects, not much in the way of yellowcake.
He also outlined further his plans for Iraq, mostly calling for new troops and a reevaluation of how to stop the country from sliding into civil war. This is an extension of the plan he proposed when he spoke with the nation on January 10th, 2007, and it seems a sensible enough plan, all things considered. The only way it would have been better was if it had been proposed, oh, I don’t know, January 10th, 2003.
The opposition response has also been a tradition, though much younger. It started in 1967, when Republicans wanted to buttress Lyndon Johnson’s claims of success in battling communism in world affairs by bemoaning the slow growth of how many communists were being eliminated each year, specifically how few of them were being eliminated in Jackson, Mississippi.
This year, the Democratic Party chose to deliver the opposition response the newly elected Senator from Virginia, Jack Webb. Webb has been in office barely a month, but he has astounding credentials, namely, having a son serving in Iraq and defeating a sitting senator that could easily have been defeated by a large stack of plywood. He is a published writer of subrate action novels and, incidentally, a former undersecretary of the navy, and therefore was looking forward to penning a scathing response. Alas, with only nine minutes, he vaguely referred to the fact that Iraq is a mess and that waitresses tend to not make a whole lot of money, continuing the standard Democratic tradition of reaching out to those voters who cannot identify the mind-numbingly obvious.
Still, the State of the Union at least gives the American people a chance to see what goals the President and his party plan to address in the upcoming year, and the response the opposition party plans to take. It can easily be one of the most important events that shape our nation, at least until the finale of American Idol. If we’re lucky.