Analysis: How the State of the Union speech devolved

By Rob Nikolewski on January 28, 2014
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By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

There was a time when presidents didn’t even bother to deliver the . They just sent a report in writing to both houses of Congress.

But that was long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

On Tuesday night, President Obama will appear in the Capitol before members of the House and Senate, as well as a government officials and a few select guests in the gallery, and talk to a television audience of millions.

TIME TO DITCH THE SPEECH?: Critics say the annual State of the Union address has turned into a “made for television political pep rally.”

Like all of his predecessors in recent years — whether they were Democrat or Republican — he’ll praise his administration’s policy directives, criticize his political opponents and assure everyone that the Republic is strong, vibrant, healthy and is eating its daily requirements of fruits and vegetables.

The speech will be interrupted by carefully placed applause lines. Members of the president’s party will wildly cheer and the members of the opposition party will sit grim-faced, as if fighting off a severe case of gastric pain.

But a host of critics say the State of the Union speech has become predictable – and they’ve had enough of it.

In a practically busted his bow tie, calling it a “made for television pep rally” and “the most execrable ceremony in the nation’s civic liturgy, regardless of which party’s president is abusing it.”

Last year, getting rid of it altogether, saying “the speech has become a giant ‘nothingburger.’ ”

, the former speechwriter who coined the phrase “a thousand points of light” for President George H.W. Bush, sounds like she’s ready to turn the lights out on the SOTU extravaganza.

“Americans aren’t impressed anymore by congressmen taking to their feet and cheering,” over the weekend. “They look as if they have electric buzzers on their butts that shoot them into the air when the applause line comes.”

Was the State of the Union always this way?

A quick look at history says no. Like so many things in the modern age, it has changed for political and technological reasons.

The speech began with pertaining to the president: “He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union.”

That’s it. There’s not even a requirement the president give a speech.

In fact, for about 150 years — between the time of Thomas Jefferson and William Howard Taft — presidents to Capitol Hill.

In an effort to drum up support for his new administration’s Progressive policies, Woodrow Wilson in 1913 was the first president since John Adams to deliver a State of the Union speech.

Since then, like cherry blossoms around the Jefferson Memorial and mosquitoes in the Tidal Basin in summertime, it has become a Washington staple.

In 1947, Harry Truman was the first president to deliver his remarks on television.

For the sake of the viewers (and TV advertisers), it was probably a good thing that Truman’s speech the year before wasn’t televised. – about five times longer than a typical SOTU address.

But the speech was still a low-key affair and was delivered during the day.

It wasn’t until 1965 that Lyndon Johnson‘s administration, eager to promote its Great Society programs, realized that essentially gave LBJ a terrific platform to go directly to the American people and look stately and presidential — without getting interrupted, except for applause.

The following year, the networks allowed Republicans to give a response to the LBJ’s speech and the tradition of a rebuttal from the opposition party started.

In 1982, Ronald Reagan singled out a member of the gallery in his State of the Union speech. Just days before, a plane crashed into the Potomac River and a government worker named and helped save one of the passengers. Reagan pointed to Skutnik, who was sitting next to First Lady Nancy Reagan and the House chamber erupted in cheers:

It was an electrifying moment and since then, virtually every president has taken the opportunity to try to match it.

However, there’s been a growing sense that in recent years the practice has become trite and somewhat patronizing. There are few political tricks older than a candidate basking in the reflected glory of the modest Everyman and Everywoman who’s done something heroic.

The current political climate hasn’t seemed to help boost the prestige of the SOTU, either.

President Obama blasted the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, with six of the justices sitting just a few feet in front of him. Obama said it “reversed a century of law” and would “open the floodgates for special interests.” muttering, “That’s not true.”

Here’s the clip:

Some criticized the president as being rude and to attend another SOTU address.

whether the justices should follow the lead of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas and not appear at the speech at all, saying: “The image of having the members of one branch of government standing up, literally surrounding the Supreme Court, cheering and hollering while the court — according to the requirements of protocol — has to sit there expressionless, I think is very troubling.”

A year earlier, while Obama was praising his plan for health care reform , Republican House member Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted, “You lie!” It didn’t happen at a State of the Union address but caused an uproar, with Wilson issuing an apology and being formally rebuked in the House:

Putting all of the criticisms of the SOTU address together, is it time to put the speech out to pasture?

, who recently authored a , doesn’t think so.

“The state of the union is always a good snapshot no matter what,” Shlaes said in a telephone interview with . “Should it be shorter? Probably. Should it be less pandering to groups? Probably. But I don’t object it at all … It’s a good snapshot of what’s going on in (the presidents’) heads and their planning.”

Mic agrees with Shlaes.

“In one respect, it is theater but in another respect I think it is valuable,” Rocca said. “It lends itself to some credibility and legitimacy to stand before Congress and the people tell them what (the president) wants done.”

Besides, given the political realties, it’s difficult to imagine sitting presidents passing up a chance to deliver what can amount to an extended campaign speech in front of the entire country and an international audience.

Having said that, if more people come to see the State of the Union address as merely an exercise in emptiness, it may run the risk of simply being ignored.

And for politicians, that truly is a fate worse than death.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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