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The State of the Union is a Fraud and Should Be Canceled

Let me confess to dozing off during President Trump’s interminable State of the Union address on Tuesday evening. The offense is one that I vow never to repeat. To ensure that I keep that vow, henceforth, I’ll just skip the event altogether. In doing so, this much is for certain: I won’t be missing anything.

When I was a kid, the annual calendar included several televised events that we considered mandatory viewing, among them the Kentucky Derby, the Indianapolis 500, the Miss America Pageant, and the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Watching them was akin to a patriotic duty.

The annual SOTU was similarly classified, its importance unquestioned. We believed—and perhaps back then that belief was not entirely baseless—that the president’s assessment of the nation’s and the world’s condition meant something. It demanded thoughtful consideration. We believed further that his proposed agenda actually had some bearing on the future of American politics.

Credit Trump with exposing the absurdity of such expectations. Granted, I am only able to judge from the speech’s first 30 minutes or so, but what I heard was vapid, cliché-ridden, and embarrassingly devoid of substantive content. Except as fodder for comedians, it was without value. No future compendium of “Great American Speeches,” no matter how inclusive, will incorporate even one sentence of Trump’s 2019 speech to a Joint Session of Congress.

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Were those in attendance or those watching at home surprised? I’m guessing not.

What we have here is a good example of political corruption far surpassing in seriousness any of the shenanigans of which Donald Trump and his offspring stand accused. That corruption is endemic. It pervades both political parties, with the endlessly blathering media establishment as willing accomplice.

I’m not taking about bribes or envelopes of money being slipped under doorways in the dead of night. I’m talking about a system mired in dysfunction, dishonesty, and overweening self-regard.

In his remarks, Trump paid tribute to “the majesty of America’s mission, and the power of American pride,” thereby eliciting predictably bipartisan and self-congratulatory applause. A more forthright and useful judgment would have been this one: the transformation of American politics into a game—or, worse, into entertainment—is now an accomplished fact. It is no longer possible to describe government at the national level as a mechanism for translating the will of the people into policies intended to advance the common good. But for those who play it, the game itself is so captivating and the entertainment so grotesquely alluring that few in Washington dare to say otherwise, and those who do find themselves marginalized.

The State of the Union address is part of a charade. It is bad theater. It is a great fraud perpetrated at the expense of the American people. It is pure, unadulterated bullshit.

A very small but not inconsequential step towards reforming our politics would be for the speaker of the House to terminate the tradition of annually inviting the chief executive to report on the State of the Union before a joint session of Congress.

Let the president send a letter, which few will read. So what? Surely, his advisors can find better things to do with their time than spending weeks crafting an instantly forgotten speech. And with the distraction of the SOTU out of the way, Congress might devote its attention to, you know, actually legislating. As for the rest of us, we can surely find better uses for a Tuesday evening in wintertime, perhaps by watching reruns of “Bonanza.”

Andrew Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large.

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "The State of the Union is a Fraud and Should Be Canceled"

#1 Comment By Anne Mendoza On February 7, 2019 @ 1:22 am

I, too, am heartily sick of the whole business, especially the mandatory applause from the President’s party for every single presidential utterance no matter how banal which merely serves to extend the clock on an extremely tiresome speech. And the post production show is just as awful. How much attention has been spent on Nancy Pelosi’s theatrical “applause”? Too much. One usually has to watch the Oscars for that kind of pain

Where do I sign a petition for a SOTU letter?

#2 Comment By Emil Bogdan On February 7, 2019 @ 1:50 am

Sir, all the “mandatory” national viewing you list from your childhood is blatantly vapid entertainment. A beauty pageant? Races between the Blues and Greens? Cartoons, or just plain gladiator contests? Andrew, what powerful herbal remedy aren’t you smoking, man? I’d like to say I agree with you that the SOTU is transforming into something openly ridiculous, but that has been the case for as long as I can remember. Maybe in your day they were far more substantive and far less pageantific exercises, but for the love of God you could not have undermined your case any further if you tried. For sheer unintended hilarity, rank this article right up there with Trump’s latest masterpiece.

The people must be entertained, always and everywhere. Don’t be so elitist, so anti-democratic, for the good-hearted and wise American populace elects outrageous clowns on a fairly regular basis. And the good old days? Go back to watching bikini girls parade and then some Charlie Brown and finally, horses running in a circle, Andrew. You and I, and all of us, are very much OF the people, we share their turgid Trump-like tastes and turbulent travails. You miss America? She’s still here, on TV, yakking about how to make the world a better place. Good day, sir.

#3 Comment By polistra On February 7, 2019 @ 4:35 am

The letter doesn’t even need to be written. It can be a simple form, copied and pasted each year.

Dear Congress:

The state of our union is STRONG.

My party is good.

The other party is bad.

Sincerely yours, The President

#4 Comment By FJR – Atlanta On February 7, 2019 @ 6:19 am

Spot on. Nothing more to add.

#5 Comment By sick-making On February 7, 2019 @ 8:44 am

“The State of the Union address is part of a charade. It is bad theater. “

I agree. I have avoided watching it for over a decade, lest I retch.

#6 Comment By Liam On February 7, 2019 @ 8:45 am

The substantive hollowing out of the SOTUA began with the gallery of heroes crapola. It’s been *merely* political gesturing for over 30 years.

#7 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On February 7, 2019 @ 8:59 am

“It is pure, unadulterated bullshit.”

Bingo!

I recall Clinton’s wind-driven inaugural SOTU spiel in ’93. When he smiled and said that he was going to appoint “mah wahf Hillary” to run the healthcare bit and the cameras focused on Madame looking appropriately demur, I recall changing channels and thinking “Ok, that’s it. No more”

Haven’t watched one since.

Bottom line: Get rid of it. The President should mail the damn thing in like Jefferson did. It can be read into the minutes, after which it published for all to read if they have nothing else to do.

#8 Comment By Mark On February 7, 2019 @ 9:04 am

This is pretty cynical.

#9 Comment By Arkansas Agrarian On February 7, 2019 @ 9:43 am

Not only is it completely worthless, the SOTU is monarchical and un-republican. All presidents should follow the example of Thomas Jefferson and refuse to give a speech, and simply write one themselves to publish, if they want to.

#10 Comment By Fred Bowman On February 7, 2019 @ 10:05 am

Well I for one missed most of this State of the Union address having opted to watch the North Carolina and NC State game. Of course, if the POTUS is going to give a State of the Union address then a appropriate venue would be the Oval Office.

#11 Comment By John D. Thullen On February 7, 2019 @ 11:08 am

Rarely, actually never, do I agree with much of the opining at TAC.

My idea of political debate with conservatives is punching Patrick Buchanan in the face and then turning Rod Dreher over my knee, even when I find some merit in his limitless outrage, and giving him a spanking to snap him out of his hysteria.

Mostly I come here for reading suggestions and let me put in a plug for Micah Mattix’s “Prufrock” offerings, mostly because comments are closed on his posts.

Sports talk/radio should copy that example because who gives a whit what Bob at home thinks and blathers about what team Manny Machado might end up on. When Machado signs, tell me the news and let me enjoy the surprise, FFS.

But, I enjoy a good Bacevich rant.

I propose one more State of the Union address, next year, presented by the spirited Bacevich himself.

Full text: “WTF is wrong with you people?”

And then kick the podium over and stalk out.

I quibble with the suggestion of “Bonanza” reruns as an alternative, but only because Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe were little more than millennial whiners living in their Pop’s basement between bouts of bothering the women in town.

Although sometimes, Hop Sing, who should have taken over the Ponderousrosa SJW-warrior-wise, rages out of the scullery, Bacevich-like, wielding a meat cleaver and threatening the boys and demanding they STFU and eat their grub.

#12 Comment By pwm02176 On February 7, 2019 @ 11:33 am

Great comment from my favorite conservative theorist…too bad the constitution calls for this annual silliness….which I’ve managed to avoid for the last ten years or so.

#13 Comment By Brian Villanueva On February 7, 2019 @ 11:56 am

In parlimentary systems, the prime minister (the head of state) regularly goes before the lagislative body to take questions and defend his (or her) policies. The SOTU provides something akin to that on an annual basis here in America.

No serious political issue can not be discussed in 30 second sound bytes or 160 character limits. The SOTU is far from perfect, but it provides a rare chance for the President to articulate an real argument directly to the American people.

The fact that the speaker, in this case, can’t form a coherent argument doesn’t negate the value of the institution itself.

#14 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 7, 2019 @ 12:08 pm

At the least, I thought it defanged a lot of the tropes the oldline media has attributed to Trump.

#15 Comment By Don Walker On February 7, 2019 @ 1:56 pm

Bacevich, as always, in right on the money.

#16 Comment By Robert Dickson Crane On February 7, 2019 @ 2:21 pm

America’s State of the Nation celebration was great, its content was superb by touching all the bases in a coherent whole, but its delivery was a letdown from Donald Trump’s powerful delivery of his message on his own without speechwriters and teleprompters.
Next time in 2020, he should reduce its length from 80 minutes to 30 and be himself. In his 2019 State of the Union message he sometimes did not seem to be even aware that he was shifting from one topic to another.

#17 Comment By K On February 7, 2019 @ 2:26 pm

I’m glad you didn’t suggest doing away altogether with the report on the state of the union, as it is a Constitutional requirement. In fact, it used to be a written report delivered to Congress. Probably went theatrical during FDR’s radio heyday.

#18 Comment By HenionJD On February 7, 2019 @ 3:15 pm

I’d rather see and U.K. style ‘Question Time”. Now THAT would be entertaining.

#19 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On February 7, 2019 @ 3:34 pm

@HenionJD

Well, the closest approximation that we have in our non-parliamentary system is the presidential press conference. Am pining for the days of Helen Thomas and Sam Donaldson. Now we get the likes of that Acosta dude of CNN who tries to play Jeremy Corbin albeit minus the panache.

#20 Comment By bgone On February 7, 2019 @ 6:46 pm

A Polity TV speech made for, by, of Cargo Cult governance.

#21 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 7, 2019 @ 8:50 pm

“I’d rather see and U.K. style ‘Question Time”. Now THAT would be entertaining.”

And all that needs to happen is for the president to close with,

“I am not open for cross examination and points of clarification.”

I prefer to read the address these days or watch it on the net where i can pause it and rewind or reread some text. In truth, the address is important even if our policy holders fail to get why or how that importance ought to be dealt with.

The address ought to be a sincere report on the state of the union: it’s polity, practices, the economy, security and defense, it’s infrastructure, current and future. There also needs to be some reference point where people connect with the official body politic as a nation.

Just because we don’t have people with that understanding doesn’t mean we should toss it under the bus. even as symbolism, the State of the Union matters.

#22 Comment By Kurt Gayle On February 7, 2019 @ 11:29 pm

Based upon CNN and CBS polls, President Trump’s State of the Union address won the approval of 76 percent of all viewers—97 percent of Republicans, 82 percent of independents, and 30 percent of Democrats.

Of course, the 76 per cent approval rating includes a lot of us simple folks out here in flyover country who lack Mr. Bracevich’s sophistication.

#23 Comment By croaker On February 8, 2019 @ 5:43 am

This outdoor mid-winter speechifying was more interesting when there was a chance the president might die of pneumonia after delivering it.

#24 Comment By Jones On February 8, 2019 @ 8:24 am

Professor Bacevich, I love you.

Good advice, though I’m sure you know no one will take it . . . In America today, there are not enough politicians of character left to field a softball team, let alone turn around the country.

#25 Comment By Hexexis On February 8, 2019 @ 9:36 pm

Apparently, thru the 19th & early 20th centuries, the SOTU WAS a letter. Pres. “He Kept Us [Thru the Election, Anyway] Out of War” Wilson started the current tradition.

As for Pres. Trump, I’ve not believed a word he’s said for the past 30+ yr; he is a revenge-fueled charlatan: ignoble, illiterate, insincere, & inarticulate. Making people miserable is all that brings him what for others would pass for pleasure. Not so sure he’s capable of anything but “mean.”