The State of the Union Address: Kings on Parade

A tradition we could do without


The White House claims that tonight's State of the Union address will be "untraditional." Like Scott Shackford, I doubt it'll be very different from past SOTUs, but even if it is, I'll be deeply surprised if it's different enough. As I've written before, the president's annual speech is a tradition we'd be better off without:

An untraditional approach
Columbia Pictures

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.

I'll be MSTing the speech on Twitter with the rest of the Reason crew; if you want to check out the spectacle tonight, you're invited to tune in to us too. But if you prefer to skip the whole thing and just skim the SOTU transcript tomorrow for traces of news, I won't blame you. Be the change we're waiting for.