This week, President George W. Bush will honour for the final time Article II, Section 3 of the US Constitution: “He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
The occasion is now a ritual of formal ceremony and high national symbolism. The Senate marches together through the Capitol to the House of Representatives. The President is announced and then, to standing ovation, passes through the throng to take his place in front of a large stars-and-stripes. Before him the Cabinet, the Joint Chiefs and the Supreme Court are seated, while television cameras capture the display for the nation.
His speech will be delivered, punctuated by bursts of formal applause. Such ritual expresses the unity and co-operation of America’s branches of government, while reinforcing the authority of the presidency.
The effectiveness of the ceremony depends on a sense of tradition, and with its constitutional roots, the State of the Union address can evoke the longevity and continuity of American democracy. Like many traditions, however, it has been subject to evolution and its fluid history can reveal something of the changing modes of American government.
Suitably, the first such address was delivered by George Washington in 1790, at a merciful 833 words. The practice did not survive America’s third president.
Thomas Jefferson decided to submit written messages to Congress, feeling that a personal appearance would be too monarchial and too adversarial – “I have prevented the bloody conflict which the making an answer would have committed them. They consequently were able to be sent into real business at once.” Though the decision may have stemmed partly from Jefferson’s discomfort with public speaking, the precedent lasted the century.
Until Woodrow Wilson in 1913, yearly presidential messages would be dispatched to Congress and published in journals nationwide. Wilson, the former college professor, saw fit to address a joint session of Congress, enacting his ideal of a dynamic, personal presidency. Since then, most presidents have followed his example.
The last to submit a written message was Carter, whose efforts to humble the imperial presidency had seen him walk his inauguration route and wear cardigans in the Oval Office. The twentieth century saw further efforts to expand the president’s audience. Coolidge was the first to have his address broadcast by radio, a practice continued to great effect by Franklin Roosevelt.
Lyndon Johnson went further in 1965, rescheduling the speech from midday to the evening, in order to catch the primetime television audience. As well as speaking to the American people, Ronald Reagan sought to include them, inviting and honouring individuals whose actions that year could represent his heroic America. This practice has continued – in recent years the House gallery has been a showcase for the bereaved and valiant of Iraq.
It is by no means all symbol and theatre. The Monroe Doctrine and Lincoln’s desire for emancipation were first expressed in State of the Union addresses. Wilson delivered his to emphasise his plans for economic reform, while Franklin Roosevelt and Johnson used theirs as a pulpit to articulate the New Deal and the Great Society respectively. In recent decades the speech has become a collective effort of the administration, a conglomerate of departmental programmes from which the speechwriters must extract a theme. However, the commanding ceremony allows a President to adorn his agenda (and his achievements) with all the symbolic weight of his office.
This is Mr Bush’s last opportunity to demand such attention and to define his presidency.