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Changing States of the Union

Comment

Remember the stirring words from Barack Obama's State of the Union address last year?

Liar. Hardly anybody remembers SOTUs (as the press calls them), including, perhaps, the presidents themselves.

Not that they are casual affairs. The White House is thrown into a state of frenzy — more so than usual, that is — before SOTUs, because every branch, department and niche in the vast executive branch wants to add something to the final speech.

Yet Obama's last address is not remembered much for its soaring rhetoric, though it did contain some: "The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice. And tonight, more than two centuries later, it's because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward and the state of our union is strong."

Instead, if it is remembered at all, it is for its seating chart.

Because of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., in Tucson on Jan. 8, a moderate think tank urged members of Congress to abandon the usual divided-by-party seating and all sit together. And about 60 members did commingle.

Noticeable by their absence, however, were three members of the Supreme Court — Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who were boycotting apparently because Obama had criticized the court — a rarity — in his SOTU the previous year.

"Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections," Obama said, as the black-robed justices looked on uncomfortably from their front-row seats and Alito was caught by the cameras mouthing the words "not true."

It is not known who will boycott this year, as not even President Obama really has to be there.

The Constitution requires only that the president "from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."

George Washington delivered his SOTUs in person and decided "from time to time" meant once each year. But Thomas Jefferson, our third president, was not a good orator, tended to mumble — his first inaugural address was inaudible except to those in the front rows — hated pomp and decided that a president addressing Congress was too much like the British monarch addressing the opening of new parliaments.

So Jefferson wrote out his SOTUs and sent them to Capitol Hill for a clerk to read aloud.

This practice continued until 1913, when Woodrow Wilson, wishing to stress the personal relationship between the presidency and the people, delivered his SOTU in person.

This did not establish a tradition, however.

According Gerhard Peters of the American Presidency Project, the history of oral delivery of SOTUs then became a spotty one, as presidents skipped some for health reasons, because they wanted to go back to the tradition of Jefferson or just because they didn't feel like it. While Franklin Roosevelt went a long way in re-establishing the oral tradition, presidents delivering them in writing included Harry Truman's first (1946) and last (1953), Dwight D. Eisenhower's last (1961), Jimmy Carter's last (1981) and Richard Nixon's fourth (1973).

Today, they are made-for-TV events, and no president, especially in an election year, would skip the free airtime. Unlike inaugural addresses, which are delivered outside and often in cold temperatures, SOTUs are delivered in the (relative) warmth of the House of Representatives chamber, and, therefore tend to run on a bit.

Obama's three addresses (his first one in 2009 was technically not a SOTU but was like one in everything but name) have averaged one hour, eight minutes and 20 seconds. George W. Bush never cracked an hour, and Bill Clinton always went on for longer than 60 minutes, and finished just shy of 90 minutes in 2000.

Everyone remembers when Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted out, "You lie!" at Obama at his SOTU on 2009 — but they remember it wrong. It was an Obama speech to a Joint Session of Congress on Sept. 9, 2009, to outline his health care reforms that Wilson rudely interrupted, and so we will have to wait to see if anyone dares shout anything this year.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan group No Labels wants members to sit together once again this year. "Of course, they should sit together. It makes perfect sense," the group said in a press release. "Unfortunately, the fact that an idea makes sense doesn't make it any more likely for Congress to act on it."

Because it is an election year, Obama's speech can be considered the semi-official start of his re-election campaign, and he will have to juggle the reality of a still-struggling economy with a sense of optimism.

Speaking in 1790 from Federal Hall in New York City, the provisional capital of the United States, George Washington delivered the nation's first SOTU.

Times were somber. Though the United States had won its revolution, the 100-month war had left the infant nation $54 million in debt — the equivalent of about $4.1 trillion today, according to one expert — and only the personal stature of Washington himself was keeping partisan division from tearing the country apart.

"The welfare of our country is the great object to which our cares and efforts ought to be directed," Washington said, "and I shall derive great satisfaction from a cooperation with you in the pleasing though arduous task of insuring to our fellow citizens the blessings which they have a right to expect from a free, efficient and equal government."

Free, efficient and equal government. Some 222 years later, that is still not a bad promise for a SOTU.

To find out more about Roger Simon, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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