Donald Trump’s signature, which he enjoys displaying after signing bills and executive orders, is unusually big, sharp and jagged. It’s like the lines a seismograph makes during an earthquake, or what a polygraph shows when you’re telling a whopper. Lately it’s looking bigger and sharper.
He’s in a crisis he summoned. His numbers are down. He’s dug himself in a hole. His foes, delighted at his struggle, refuse to help him get out—even as they claim concern that employees are going without pay and air-traffic controllers are calling in sick, even when the longer the shutdown, the likelier something really bad will happen.
The State of the Union address has been sacrificed. It is fair that the president not give the address—and that the House speaker not leave Washington, even to visit troops—during a shutdown in which others, not they, suffer. But it would have been much better if both sides had met and issued a statement: “We acknowledge that a shutdown is always the result of failure, and while it continues the president and the Congress will forgo benefits of office. We will continue to talk and attempt to end the impasse. As soon as we do, this important address will take place.”
They can’t say that because they’re not talking. Which is amazing in itself, and a scandal.
Nancy Pelosi’s original excuse for disinviting Mr. Trump, security concerns, was lame and disingenuous, and being obviously those things it was also aggressive.
And all because she didn’t want to sit behind him and stare at his hair. She didn’t want to sit through an hour of listening to him while looking at the back of his head, which is what speakers do. If the speech had taken place as usual, Mr. Trump, being Mr. Trump, likely would have used the moment to put her on the spot—making some plea for agreement, having his Republicans jump to their feet in applause, turning around, pausing, daring her not to nod to his good-faith idea.
That would have been rude. He is rude. And now he has been punished. No speech! I’m not sure we fully appreciate that for a speaker of the House to tell a president of the United States that he is not welcome to make a State of the Union address is a shocking violation of norms. And it will lead to nothing good. A new precedent will have been set: You can disinvite a president if you hate him. And the future won’t be short of hate.
I’m hearing a lot of “good riddance” about the speech, but that’s shortsighted and historically ignorant. Yes, the event has devolved into kabuki in which stupid applause lines prompt rote cheering. Yes, it’s too often a laundry list. The language has become phony as it attempts to be elevated: “Let us follow those better angels.” My urging to speech-givers has been to hold the let-us. Plain, straight and honest is the way to go, and if you have a little wit that won’t hurt either.
What’s being overlooked is that the speech has a high policy purpose. It’s not a celebration of the imperial presidency. In fact, it puts the president on the spot. The Founders were not stupid and knew what they were doing when, in the Constitution, they instructed the chief executive to report to Congress on the condition the country is in.
The speech is a public acknowledgment that America is both a democracy and a republic. Somehow we’re never reminded. But that’s the chief executive going down the street to Congress’s house, asking to enter, and trying his best to persuade that coequal branch as the judiciary looks on.
The fact of the speech forces a White House to concentrate on what it thinks. Suddenly it must determine and put into words its priorities for the coming year. Suddenly it has a deadline. Suddenly it has to take its own sentiments seriously. The speech forces the president to decide, to focus, and not to take shelter in the day-to-day and whatever crisis just came over the transom.
The president is forced to take stock. He must state with at least some measure of credibility that “the State of the Union is . . .” Is what?
Harry Truman in 1949 was plain, unadorned: The state of the union is “good.” Gerald Ford in 1975 was blunt to the point of downcast: “The State of the Union is not good”—too many people out of work, inflation too high. Ronald Reagan in 1985 congratulated the American people for producing “a nation renewed, stronger, freer, and more secure than before.” George H.W. Bush in 1992 didn’t characterize the historical era but an event: “I am not sure we’ve absorbed the full impact, the full import of what happened. But communism died this year. . . . By the grace of God, America won the Cold War.” Woodrow Wilson in December 1913: “The country, I am thankful to say, is at peace with all the world.” For Franklin D. Roosevelt in January 1945, the subject was the war: “Everything we are and have is at stake. Everything we are, and have, will be given.”
It matters what they say! Not only to the moment but to history.
As to its other purposes, the speech is a moment of enacted majesty. Not real majesty—real majesty would be Jackie Kennedy walking behind the caisson and behind her a street full of kings. But it’s a night when our democracy struts its stuff. The president, Congress, the Supreme Court, the cabinet, the diplomatic corps, the military, the press in the gallery, all arrayed. The heroes in the balcony, reminding us not of our politics but of our humanity, of the fact that almost against the odds America keeps producing spectacular individuals. All are there acting out comity, dignity, stature. I don’t really care if they feel these things. No one cares. We just want them to show it because children are watching, or at least taking a look as they pass a screen, and learning how adults in public act.
My friend Jeremy Shane, who worked in the George H.W. Bush administration, speaks of the thrill of the door’s opening. “It was hard not to get goose bumps when the sergeant-at-arms bangs on the floor and announces, ‘Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States!’ ” And modest Landon Parvin, one of the great speechwriters of our era, remembers watching the speech as a child. “When I was growing up, State of the Unions were special occasions, like the queen opening Parliament and giving her speech. They were, in effect, occasions of state.”
All this has value. A fracturing nation cannot afford to so blithely cast aside another of its traditions.
Everyone involved should have shown forbearance and courtesy, a greater seriousness about a worthy tradition as it was delayed but not canceled, knowing you maintain form because you know democracies are in some part held together by it.
The speaker has shamed herself by not negotiating to end the problem that caused the postponement.
The president wouldn’t take a deal; now they won’t make a deal. We live through the chaos that is, always, his signature move.