State of the Union

State of the Union Addresses: Going Downhill for 100 Years

The 'kingly' boredom of the State of the Union address


The movie isn't very good either. Though I did enjoy that weird scene where Spencer Tracy calls for a world government.

Thomas Jefferson considered it "kingly" to deliver his State of the Union report as a speech, so he sent the Senate and the House some written comments instead. Woodrow Wilson, never reluctant to play king, brought back the speechifying in 1913, and the modern custom of addressing a joint session of Congress was born.

The state of the actual union has improved in many ways in the century since then, but State of the Union addresses have kept heading downhill. Calvin Coolidge reversed many of Wilson's kingly policies, eventually including the oral address; before then, though, he made the mistake of broadcasting it on the radio, expanding the crown's audience even further. (*) FDR brought back the speech (and the broadcast), the show came to TV in the Truman years, and under LBJ the other party started airing a response right afterward, an innovation that may sound even-handed and democratic but in practice just amplified the kingliness. As I wrote a few years ago,

No matter how lethargic, long-winded, dishonest, or dimwitted the president's speech may be, the reply will feel like a pathetic rejoinder put together in someone's rec room. A politician—possibly a party leader but often a "rising star," i.e., someone most viewers won't have heard of—stares at a camera in an apparently empty office, reciting a set of talking points. In the State of the Union speech itself, an immensely powerful man sets an agenda. In the response, no matter what the speaker says, the takeaway message for anyone still bothering to watch is that he isn't setting the agenda. In Great Britain, the opposition gets to confront the prime minister on television every week. In the United States, the opposition gets to borrow the camera after the president has left the room.

And then, just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, Ronald Reagan added the element of singling out people to praise in the audience, thus seasoning the bland proceedings with the flavor of a high school assembly. I'm trying hard to think of a way the State of the Union tradition has improved since FDR, and all I can come up with is the invention of cable TV: Now at least there's something else to watch.

The ideal way to experience the SOTU is to skip the speech as it's broadcast and then read it in the paper or online the next day, a practice that allows you to scan the text quickly for nuggets of news while avoiding the pomp and boredom of the show. In a better world, we never would have abandoned Jefferson's approach to the State of the Union report, but even in this one we can act as though that saner system is still in place.

(* I originally wrote that Coolidge did not abolish the speech, but I was wrong: After initially continuing in a Wilsonian vein he restored the Jeffersonian practice. I stand corrected.)

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  1. The Soviet Union did at least one thing right. It should be goosestepping Zouaves and miles and miles of tanks rolling past.

    1. Maybe they should have the Blue Angels pilots operating drones. They could do some close-formation Predator stunt fly-bys.

      1. My GOD that would rule.

        1. As a grand finale, they could skywrite in red, white and blue smoke:


  2. Is that Murder She wrote in a bodice? Ewwww.

    1. John would.

      1. She was like 80 years old when she was Murder She Wrote. But after seeing her in the Mancherean Candidate, no thanks. Incest is just not my thing pal.


          18 year old Angela

          Of course, I hadn’t been born then.

          1. She was very attractive. It is just that that movie kind of ruined her for me.

    2. Young Landsberry was actually quite attactive.

    3. Angela Lansbury was, in her youth, an absolute hottie with kissable lips and anyone who says eww is not a heterosexual male. Period.

      1. A good actress too. She basically played the ultimate evil bitch in The Mancherian Candidate.

      2. Oh, fightin’ dirty eh?
        I bet looking at your mom’s high school year book photo got you hard.

        1. It worked for John.

          1. Attractive women usually do.

            1. I never got into post menopausal women, but that’s just me. Though it won’t be that much longer before I have no choice.

              1. At some point, most men live with one.

              2. I don’t either. I was talking about the young Lansbury not the old one. And I would still hit Helen Miren, I don’t care if she is 70. So every rule has an exception.

                1. T

                  1. *barf*

                    Jesus Fuckin Christ, John – get some “Identifying ‘Too Far'” lessons.

                    1. You leave Helen Miren alone.

                    2. The last several posts qualify as art. It’s like reading Shakespeare.

                    3. I’d hit it.

                    4. I gotta go with John on this one. I’d hit that.

                    5. Wait, no. Not Helen Mirren. Although I’d have to consider that, too. I was thinking Meryl Streep. I’d definitely hit that.

                    6. The Devil Wears Prada Brandon. I think I would hit Streep. And probably Diane Keeton as well if we are talking about the over 60 weight class.

                    7. Why don’t we make a list of 60+ women you wouldn’t sleep with? It might take less time.

                    8. It is a short list. But it is not a nil set iggy.

      3. You beat me to the gaslight photo.

        1. There was a talkie whose name I forget, where she does a song and dance routine. I was a kid when I saw it, and I was really aware of this weird feeling that I wanted to do something to her – not sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to do it to her.

  3. “I’m trying hard to think of a way the State of the Union tradition has improved in the last 100 years, and all I can come up with is the invention of cable TV: Now at least there’s something else to watch.”

    And Teh Internetz – fun can be had, despite the speechifying.

    1. We rock it ol skool and play pool on my NEW, FREE POOL TABLE! and play with the dogs.

      A nice game of billiards with one’s son is eminently relaxing. My brother in law gave us a table his wife’s grandfather procured from a bar in Detroit decades ago. The patina is spectacular. They’re moving and couldn’t take it with them. More’s the pity – for them. It plays pretty straight, too.

      So – pool and playing with the dogs for us tonight.

      Also, fuck Congress and the Administration.

    2. Really, I think Twitter has improved it. I really enjoy watching/reading Reason make fun of pompous ceremony.

  4. “Man dies of alcohol poisoning from drinking game involving a sip of beer for every SOTU statement which begged the question, appealed for maudlin sympathy, or otherwise violated logic and decency.”

  5. I didn’t think it could get any worse than the hour and a half yawn fests Clinton used to give. I was wrong.

    1. God, Clinton was excruciating. But I literally cannot listen to our current President. Literally. Shut off the radio or TV or from whatever his vice is emanating. I despise his sibilance and simplistic, constant question begging and presentation of false choices.

      Clinton I could tolerate – even Bush, until the last year (I just couldn’t take any more and took to tuning him off, too). Obama I cannot abide. At all.

      1. His “vice” – HAHA! Meta, Freudian, or fat fingers – let’s go to the audience for a vote!

        1. I’m going to go with meta. In that it’s a reference to Obozo’s obvious addiction to the sound of his own voice.

          Also because fuck you, that’s why.

  6. President Dean would do away with the SOTU address, and go back to just sending a memo.

    “If it was good enough for Abe Lincoln, its good enough for me.”

    1. A single tweet should be sufficient.

      1. “SOTU seems OK, could be better. Reform package to follow. To donate to my re-elect, go to blah.tinyurl. #DEANRULES”

        1. Can you work a mic drop in there? Cause if you did that, I’d cancel my campaign and vote for you.


    Three years after the White House arranged a hero’s welcome at the State of the Union address for the Fort Hood police sergeant and her partner who stopped the deadly shooting there, Kimberly Munley says President Obama broke the promise he made to her that the victims would be well taken care of.

    “Betrayed is a good word,” former Sgt. Munley told ABC News in a tearful interview to be broadcast tonight on “World News with Diane Sawyer” and “Nightline.”

    “Not to the least little bit have the victims been taken care of,” she said. “In fact they’ve been neglected.”

    There was no immediate comment from the White House about Munley’s allegations.

    Thirteen people were killed, including a pregnant soldier, and 32 others shot in the November 2009 rampage by the accused shooter, Major Nidal Hasan, who now awaits a military trial on charges of premeditated murder and attempted murder.

    Tonight’s broadcast report also includes dramatic new video, obtained by ABC News, taken in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, capturing the chaos and terror of the day.

    WATCH Exclusive Video of Fort Hood’s Aftermath

    Munley, since laid off from her job with the base’s civilian police force, was shot three times as she and her partner, Sgt. Mark Todd, confronted Hasan, who witnesses said had shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he opened fire on soldiers being processed for deployment to Afghanistan.

    1. Al-Awlaki has since been killed in a U.S. drone attack in Yemen, in what was termed a major victory in the U.S. efforts against al Qaeda.

      Munley and dozens of other victims have now filed a lawsuit against the military alleging the “workplace violence” designation means the Fort Hood victims are receiving lower priority access to medical care as veterans, and a loss of financial benefits available to those who injuries are classified as “combat related.”

      READ the Fort Hood Victims’ Lawsuit

      Some of the victims “had to find civilian doctors to get proper medical treatment” and the military has not assigned liaison officers to help them coordinate their recovery, said the group’s lawyer, Reed Rubinstein.

    2. salliemb
      11:42 AM EST
      Feb 12, 2013
      Aren’t there two sides to every story? People are very good at jumping to conclusions and not waiting for both sides to speak. I will wait for all the facts to find out if, indeed, O is a slimeball.

      Wait for the investigation.

      1. All the surviving evidence from a case about police tampering supports that the police weren’t guilty of tampering. Therefore, no police tampering occurred.


        1. The bitter, RACIST clingers wil never be satisfied.


      2. I love it that they laid off the only rent a cop in history who actually did something brave. The fact that she confronted a mad man and took three bullets apparently did her no good on her evaluations or position on the seniority list.

        1. That is just awful. My stomach hurts – I hate people…

        2. Even if she was terrible at her job, there is always a desk somplace that needs someone to sit at it and log the hours.

          What a bunch of fucking weasels.

      3. I will wait for all the facts to find out if, indeed, O is a slimeball.

        Anyone who hasn’t figured that out already isn’t going to, no matter how many “facts” they are presented with.

    3. So Fort Hood is a “workplace” now? Does that mean they follow minimum wage and overtime laws now?

      1. Well, they won’t let even vetted military officers carry guns, so I guess yeah. I mean, what kind of a fort doesn’t allow military officers to fight back when they’re being shot to death? Not much of a fort.

    4. President Obama broke the promise he made

      Well, stop the fucking presses.

      1. I know. But she is probably not most politically aware person in the world and was taken in by the giant bullshit machine that is the Obama White House. I think she is worthy of some sympathy.

        1. hell, taking bullets and shooting at Hasan earns her sympathy all by itself.

    5. Munley, since laid off from her job with the base’s civilian police force,

      You’ve got to be kidding me. They fired her?

      1. It is almost like they were embarrassed by what she did or something.

      2. “LAID OFF”, RC! Geez! I’m sure plenty of other people have been laid off in the BOOSH economy we’re continuing to suffer through.

        LOTS of other civilian contractors I bet. I’m sure of it. They probably have a whole list of them.

        You’re jus quetioning this because RACIST!!!!!111!

      3. You’ve got to be kidding me. They fired her?

        It was the evil REthuglicans with their Sequestration that wot done it.

        1. BOOOOOOOOSH

    6. “Betrayed is a good word,” former Sgt. Munley told ABC News in a tearful interview to be broadcast tonight

      Love how they’re broadcasting it tonight when it’s guaranteed to be ignored because of all the SOTU coverage. Couldn’t have planned it any better.

  8. If Rubios’ writer s have any sense they must realize so many problems are calling for solution that …there can be no just and permanent readjustment except when all participate.

    The civilization which measured its strength of genius and the power of science and the resources of industries?is brought to its severest test in restoring a tranquil order and committing humanity to the stable ways of peace.

    If the sober and deliberate appraisal of pre-war civilization makes it seem a worth-while inheritance, then with patience and good courage it will be preserved?The world has been passing–is today passing through of a great crisis.

    Mindful of the tremendous costs of betterments, extensions, and expansions, and mindful of the staggering debts of the world to-day, the difficulty is magnified.

    Government operation does not afford the cure. It was Government operation which brought us to the very order of things against which we now rebel, and we are still liquidating the costs of that supreme folly.The relationship of State and Federal regulation, demands the effective correlation and a concerted drive to meet an insistent and justified public demand.

    Indeed so relevant is the rest of Warren Harding’s 1922 SOTU that I think i shall read the rest of it instead of nodding off to Obama’s.

  9. Woodrow Wilson, never reluctant to play king, brought back the speechifying in 1913, and the modern custom of addressing a joint session of Congress was born.

    Every day, my hatred for Woodrow Wilson is re-kindled. Fuck.

    1. He was probably the first fascist world leader. He created the first propaganda department IN THE WORLD. He was a fascist before it was cool.

  10. The ideal way to experience the SOTU is to skip the speech as it’s broadcast and then read it in the paper or online the next day…

    This is exactly what I plan to do, except for the “read it in the paper or online the next day” part.

    1. Does reading bitter, snarky commentary about the speech count? Because that’s my plan.

  11. Thomas Jefferson considered it “kingly” to deliver his State of the Union report as a speech.

    This is exactly why Obama thinks it’s a great idea. He thinks “Kingly” is a compliment.

  12. Jefferson had a thin speaking voice, which also played a part in his decision to use a written address. Wilson liked to show off his skills as an orator, so he went back to a spoken address.

    The Orient Express spaceplane and Space Station Freedom were both proposed in Reagan’s State of the Union messages. The latter morphed into the ISS.

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