My job requires me to watch the State of the Union tonight, but I'm not looking forward to it. For as long as I have been sitting through these speeches, they have been dull and dishonest collections of clichés, salted with frequently forgotten promises and delivered with a set of semi-royalist rituals that ought to offend a free people. As I wrote two years ago,
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…[a]nd 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.
Under LBJ, the opposition party started airing a response right after the president's speech. That only made things worse:
If there's one constant in the recent history of the State of the Union address, it's this: 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.
Lately we've seen some bonus responses aired after that, often sponsored by Tea Party groups. While these are sometimes more interesting, they usually display the same problems as the official retort.
We'll do our best here at Reason to make the State of the Union a more enjoyable experience for you, with our smart-assed tweets and our SOTU-themed Cards Against Humanity game. But make no mistake: We're just making the best of a bad situation. A better America would turn its back on kingliness and return to a written report.