Charles C.W. Cooke:
On Tuesday evening, at just after nine o’clock, an American citizen will give a political speech, and for a brief moment the media’s world will stop turning on its axis. Dropping what they were doing, every news station will broadcast his words live; a cabal of quick-draw analysts will wait in the wings to defend or to attack his ideas; the newspapers and opinion journals will start the process of dissecting it nine ways to Sunday; and, after the dust has settled, the White House will declare victory. Meanwhile, admirably disinterested in such things as it is, the public will mostly tune out.
And yet, as latently as they may be aware of the details, most will accept its occurrence as if it were mandated by nature itself. They should do no such thing. As a matter of basic constitutional propriety, there is something unutterably rotten about the State of the Union. The essential principle of the American settlement, Thomas Jefferson confirmed in a 1797 letter, “is that of a separation of legislative, Executive and Judiciary functions.” And as far as possible, he added, it is incumbent upon “every friend of free government” to keep it that way. Why, then, each and every January are we happy to watch the head of the executive branch walk slap bang into the middle of the legislature and deliver an unchallenged, immoderate, and entirely self-serving lecture about himself and his desires? Why do we permit one branch to issue a campaign speech in the heart of enemy territory? How do we imagine we are serving the interests of fractured government by assembling all of its moving parts in one place?
Within the English system of government — in which the executive and the legislature are fused — such an arrangement would make perfect sense. Within the Madisonian system, however, it is little short of preposterous — especially when one considers that the legislature is accorded no opportunity whatsoever to push back. Explaining his decision to abolish the practice in 1801, President Thomas Jefferson contended that the new country should not tolerate a pageant so similar in nature to the British Speech from the Throne, and announced instead that he would be fulfilling his constitutional duties in writing. Hoping to forestall what he would later describe bitterly as the “mimickry” of “royal forms and ceremonies,” Jefferson instead elected to forsake the “pompous cavalcade” and to eschew all of those “forms and ceremonies” that were “not at all in character with the simplicity of republican government.” Henceforth, Jefferson hoped, the report would be delivered on paper.
This reticence was both admirable and radical, serving not only as a rare example of a powerful man willingly limiting his own grandiosity — and as a salutary lesson in how the separation of powers should be regarded by all — but helping also to calibrate the political expectations of a people who remained unsure as to whether one could actually run a successful nation without putting a monarch or a Great Man at the helm. That the practice that Jefferson strangled was eventually resuscitated by that outspoken enemy of republican virtue, President Thomas Woodrow Wilson, should frankly worry anybody who is concerned about the maintenance of political balance in America. Champions of the legislature might be alarmed, too, to learn that, after the infinitely laudable Calvin Coolidge had reversed Wilson’s course, the spoken address was brought back once again by the most imperial of all America’s imperial presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The State of the Union, we might say, is a Jacksonian rather than a Jeffersonian game.
Refer to Article Two, Section 3, Clause 1 of the Constitution of the United States.
The people have every right to know what the President of the United States reports to Congress and to witness that presentation themselves. Radio and television—which didn’t exist in the days of Jefferson or Jackson—have made that possible. If Mr. Cooke doesn’t like it, perhaps he should have someone explain to him how to operate his remote control. I doubt if he has complained when presidents he has supported have occupied the White House.