All day today at National Review Online’s The Corner, posters have been denouncing the State of the Union speech. Boring and pointless, they say. Not until the media age did it occur to anyone to deliver the constitutionally-mandated “message” as a speech. Too long. Too boring. Not enough memorable is said.
The truth is, the State of the Union is a grand American event—a moment of specific ceremonial pomp, with traditions of announcement and greeting and rhetorical patterns dating back nearly 100 years. It is true that the speech has become a boring laundry list over the past 30 years or so, but that is the fault of the permanent government system of the modern Washington, where executive agencies all but demand their moment in the sun with a paragraph or two of their wish lists.
What we learn from States of the Union is what the temperature of the American polity is—whether the minority party, or the party that is not the president’s, feels it must behave with utmost respect and decorum or whether it can show its displeasure and discomfort and disrespect. In that way alone, it is an important indicator of a president’s perceived power and standing in a way that few events outside of, say, a special election in Massachusetts can be. That’s one of the reasons I like them and am fascinated by them, and think the attack on the SOTU is little more than attitudinal snark.