For those Americans planning to inflict the president’s State of the Union Speech [SOTUS] upon their eyes, ears, and cerebra, some historical information and international comparison are in order. Article II, Section 3 of our deceased Constitution prescribes that the president “shall from time to time give the Congress information of the State of the Union…”
In the American republic’s benighted pre-empire period, the chief executive construed this provision to mean that he should arrange a written message to be delivered to his fellow wardheelers at the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue. While this sufficed for men of small vision who did not share Bill Kristol’s hallucinations of National Greatness, it was obvious that changes were required as the twentieth century dawned. Our first messianic president, a man truly suited to the nascent empire, was Woodrow Wilson. It was he who determined that the message should be delivered in person by the God-Emperor himself.
Still, these orational messages were relatively decorous affairs at first. As recently as the 1960s, the pols in their seats maintained a measure of dignity. Evidently they were conscious, however dimly, of constituting a co-equal branch of government.
For instance, Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 SOTUS was delivered only two months after the expiration of the sainted JFK; in such circumstances, one could expect an emotional “rally ’round the president” outburst. As well, a majority in the chamber were members of the president’s own party, and they could be expected to strongly favor anything he proposed. Morever, he was addressing such lugubrious topics as his “unconditional war on poverty” (little did we know that “poverty” was Lyndon’s codeword for “Vietnam,” and that “war” was not a metaphor). Yet the Thors and Wotans of the legislative branch managed to restrain themselves in the applause department in a manner that would seem downright comatose today.
It was in the 1980s that the SOTUS degenerated into a hybrid of an evangelical medicine show, Hollywood schmaltz act, and Nuremburg Rally. As the chamber had a fair representation of anthropoid members like the hebephrenic Bob Dornan, the flag-worshiping Gerald B.H. Solomon, and Ole Miss cheerleader Trent Lott, Ronald Reagan could hardly be faulted for wanting to give them a performance worthy of King’s Row.
At around that time another element of the imperial SOTUS began to be a regular feature: the emotional prop in the gallery. Since then a battalion of wounded soldiers, plucky-ex welfare moms, inner-city pedagogues, and Lazarus-like recoverers from fatal affliction has tugged at the national heartstrings.
In recent times, members of the president’s party have often caucused informally beforehand to warm up for the pep rally and remind each other about which themes they should applaud most thunderously. They also rehearse their lines whereby they tell reporters that the president’s outpouring was the finest speech since Pericles’ funeral oration. The applause, which occurs after virtually every sentence the president utters, constitutes about 40 percent of the length of the speech.
The speeches themselves are grimly formulaic. They are studded with scores of contradistinctions in apposition (“we must move forward, not backward!”). The speech writers, in their obscene humor, insert dozens of weak puns and plays on words (“mushrooming scientific knowledge must not become a mushroom cloud”). Failed policies of the past must give way to bold new solutions for the future. America is the twinkling star in the firmament. Heathen foreigners cannot possibly grasp how wise, generous and good the American people are.
Substantively, the SOTUS is a catalogue of bogus miracles and do-goodism run riot: cancer cures, colonization of the known universe, every child an Isaac Newton, free Lipitor for the geezers, marriage counseling for the, you know, lesser breeds. At the same time, however, America’s enemies are legion, and for some mysterious reason they want to destroy us. Fear not, our virtuous soldiers will scatter the foe like chaff. Once-evil Babylon will rise again in divine grace, thanks to our healing touch. After an anecdotal nod to the Joe Blow in the gallery, the speech takes its rote course, a mass of treacly balderdash heaving and wheezing its way to an orgasmic climax.
In older, more settled cultures these performances must be startling. Traditional Japan also regarded its chief magistrate as a God-Emperor. Consonant with His Majesty’s dignity, however, he did not do anything so vulgar as to broadcast his voice to the public. The mass of the Japanese people had never heard Hirohito’s voice throughout the entire world war they waged on his behalf. Imagine their confusion when, after the atomic obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he took to the air waves to inform them that “the situation has taken a course not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.” Note the decorous sense of understatement, a rhetorical flourish unknown in the SOTUS.
But there are other cultures in which the SOTUS ritual is a perfect fit: intensely ideologized countries where discourse is inseparable from a pep-rally, where mandatory cheerfulness is the order of the day. The archetype of such a system is the Soviet Union, particularly under the firm but loving guidance of the Georgian visionary, J.V. Stalin. Even the acronym SOTUS (so lovingly invoked by West Wing bureaucrats) recalls crisp, businesslike abbreviations like AMTORG, GOSPLAN and CHEKA that were in vogue under the late marshal.
As a former seminarian, he knew better than to call for a separation of church and state. The state was the church. And the chief liturgical ceremony was the leader’s speech. Who needs cheerleaders from Ole Miss and Texas Christian when the NKVD is present in the chamber, ensuring that the thunderclap of applause never slackens? Indeed, so prolonged were these outburst that eventually Stalin had a buzzer installed at the podium so that he could signal to the delegates that their applause was of sufficient duration.
But prior to this technological intervention, one of these party clambakes got out of hand. As related in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago: “For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the ‘stormy applause, rising to an ovation,’ continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting with exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin. However, who would dare be the first to stop?” Finally, after eleven minutes, one of the party hacks “assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat.” The applause stopped. The hack got 10 years in the Gulag.
It is well to keep Solzhenitsyn’s anecdote in mind for the upcoming SOTUS. In the 10 December Insight Magazine (official organ of the Unification Church), J. Michael Waller ponders whether opponents of administration policy–including sitting members of Congress–are treasonous and thereby subject to arrest, imprisonment, and (presumably) execution. Waller, Ann Coulter, Mona Charen, and a whole tribunal of yahoo Vishinskys can be expected to assess a legislator’s putative treason of the basis of his enthusiasm–or lack thereof–for the Leader’s pronouncements at the SOTUS. The Fox cameras, we may be sure, will examine Hillary’s demeanor just as 1984’s telescreen probed Winston Smith for the smallest sign of crimethink.
* WERTHER is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst