George F. Will: A night of nonsense

Published: February 17, 2013

In the 12 months we have to steel ourselves for the next State of the Union spectacle, let us count the ways that this spawn of democratic Caesarism — presidency-worship — has become grotesque. It would be the most embarrassing ceremony in the nation's civic liturgy were the nation still capable of being embarrassed by its puerile faith in presidential magic.

The Constitution laconically requires only that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Nothing requires “from time to time” to be construed as “every damn year.” Informing and recommending need not involve today's tawdry ritual of wishful thinking by presidents unhinged from political reality, and histrionics by their audiences. And must we be annually reminded that all presidents think that everything they want is “necessary and expedient”?

Some of the blame for this yearly night of nonsense goes to Ronald Reagan. Most, however, goes to Woodrow Wilson. Reagan, who loved entertainment, pioneered the regrettable practice of stocking the House gallery with (usually) admirable people. Wilson, who loved himself, had, as professors often do, a theory, which caused him to reverse Thomas Jefferson's wholesome reticence.

When the Founding generation was developing customs and manners appropriate to a republic, George Washington and John Adams made the mistake of going to Congress to do their constitutional duty of informing and recommending. Jefferson, however, disliked the sound of his voice — such an aversion is a vanishingly rare presidential virtue — and considered it monarchical for the executive to lecture the legislature, the lofty instructing underlings. So he sent written thoughts to Capitol Hill, a practice good enough for subsequent presidents until Wilson in 1913 delivered his message orally, pursuant to the progressives' belief in inspirational and tutelary presidents.

It is beyond unseemly, it is anti-constitutional for senior military officers and, even worse, Supreme Court justices, to attend these political rallies where, with metronomic regularity, legislators of the president's party leap to their feet to whinny approval of every bromide and vow. Members of the other party remain theatrically stolid, thereby provoking brow-furrowing punditry about why John Boehner did not rise (to genuflect? salute? swoon?) when Barack Obama mentioned this or that. Tuesday night, the justices, generals and admirals, looking as awkward as wallflowers at a prom, at least stayed seated.

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