Lyndon Johnson, leaving the White House one day, strode across the south lawn towards the waiting helicopters. As he approached, one of the marine guards said, “Mr. President, your helicopter is the one on the left.” The six-foot-three president stopped and leaned over the marine, putting his hand on his shoulder. “Son,” Johnson said gently, “they are all my helicopters.”
Yesterday, the 45th president affirmed the truth of the 36th president’s statement. Giving the shut down as a reason, he denied the use of government aircraft for a trip to Afghanistan by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a group of congressional representatives. He suggested the speaker stay in Washington until the government shutdown is over, but noted brightly that flying commercial instead was, of course, her prerogative.
This nasty little jab was in response to the speaker’s equally nasty—and self-serving—suggestion that, due to security concerns (the Secret Service is currently unfunded), the president must postpone his State of the Union speech, which had been scheduled for January 29th. She also suggested that he could just send in the written text, as had often been done in the past. Doubtless, the Speaker’s real motivation was that she didn’t fancy sitting behind the President while he excoriated the Democrats for refusing to negotiate.
She was, at least, right about the history of the speech. Thomas Jefferson, saying that a speech to Congress was too monarchical, had stopped delivering it in person. (The fact that Jefferson hated public speaking and was bad at it probably had more to do with his decision.) No president delivered the State of the Union address in person again until 1913 when Woodrow Wilson—an excellent public speaker—resumed the practice.
Since then every president except Herbert Hoover—another poor public speaker—has delivered the constitutionally-mandated “Information of the State of the Union” (Article II, Section 3) in person. In the interim, it has evolved into a grand state occasion. The address is nowadays not all that dissimilar from the British monarch’s annual Speech from the Throne that Jefferson deplored (minus, to be sure, the billion dollars in crown jewels and the antique costumes).
While it gets surprisingly good ratings, the State of the Union is almost invariably a bore. In years of watching it, I can remember only two phrases of note. In 1975, as inflation ravaged the American economy despite a recession and people waited in long lines to buy gasoline, President Gerald Ford declared that “the state of the Union is not good.” Then, in 1995, after one of the most remarkable mid-term elections in presidential history, one that gave the Republicans control of both houses for the first time in 40 years, a chastened President Clinton said that “The era of big government is over.”
So why not let the president just phone it in from here on out? The main reason, of course, is presidents love being at the uncontested center of American politics for at least one night on all channels. But maybe this year, the president should give the speech in the Senate chamber (it’s smaller, so the representatives would have to stand, the way the members of the House of Commons have to while hearing the Speech from the Throne in the House of Lords). But I bet he’ll give it on time and in the House, and the Speaker will listen, seething quietly, behind him.
I think that everyone can at least agree on one thing. The Trump presidency has not been boring.