On the afternoon of Tuesday, Jan. 19, 1999, President Bill Clinton’s lawyers began presenting their defense at his impeachment trial in the US Senate. A few hours later, the senators responsible for deciding Clinton’s fate crossed to the other side of the Capitol to hear the president deliver his State of the Union address in the House chamber.
Like so much else about Clinton’s presidency, his appearance before a joint session of Congress that night — in the midst of his trial on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice — was highly inappropriate. Quite a few members of Congress, including some of Clinton’s fellow Democrats, had voiced qualms about proceeding with the State of the Union while he was being tried for high crimes and misdemeanors. Senator John Kerry described the spectacle as an “absurdity.” Senator Dianne Feinstein of California pronounced it “almost schizophrenic.” An especially strong objection came from Delaware’s Senator Joe Biden, who said, “The president would be absolutely mindless if he went forward with a State of the Union address while a trial was going on.”
But Clinton had no interest in postponing his speech. The State of the Union hoopla proceeded as planned, Clinton basked in the usual complement of standing ovations, and the next day the Senate resumed its consideration of whether to remove him from office.
Given the Clinton precedent, there is no chance that President Trump will postpone the State of the Union address scheduled for Feb. 4. If the Senate calls witnesses, which seems increasingly likely, the impeachment trial will almost certainly not be finished before the speech. As a matter of propriety and dignity, Trump’s appearance ought to be put off until the Senate, as expected, acquits him. Alas, Trump has no more interest in propriety and dignity than Clinton did.
So what follows is, admittedly, just wishful thinking.
What Trump really ought to do is not just postpone his State of the Union appearance, but cancel it altogether. The Constitution, in Article II, Section 3, does oblige presidents to periodically “give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.” But it says nothing about doing so in a speech. The first two presidents delivered their messages in person before both houses of Congress, but Thomas Jefferson wanted nothing to do with the “monarchical sentiments” of a “formal speech from the throne.” Very early in his presidency, therefore, he made it clear that his first message to Congress, “like all subsequent ones,” would be by a written message “to which no answer will be expected.”
He was true to his word. In December 1801, Jefferson sent his first annual message in writing to Capitol Hill. His example instantly became the norm. From 1801 through 1912, every State of the Union message arrived as a written document. Not until the arrival of the egotistical, authoritarian, and supercilious Woodrow Wilson was there a reversion to the old, monarchical ritual of an in-person address.
Wilson’s decision “to go back to the long-abandoned custom,” The Washington Post reported on April 7, 1913, left all official Washington “agape.” Senator John Sharp Williams of Mississippi denounced “this cheap and tawdry imitation of English royalty.” But Wilson’s change gradually took hold. For six years, he conveyed his annual messages as speeches (a stroke prevented him from doing so in 1919 and 1920), and Warren Harding followed suit in 1921 and 1922. Calvin Coolidge went the speech route only once before resuming the old habit of written messages, which lasted through the end of Herbert Hoover’s presidency.
But then came Franklin Roosevelt, and the “pompous cavalcade” despised by Jefferson returned. Ever since FDR, presidents have swept up Pennsylvania Avenue to deliver State of the Union speeches amid cheers, applause, and the ballyhoo of a prime-time TV production. Members of Congress crowd the aisle in hopes of scoring an on-camera handshake or backslap. Black-clad Supreme Court justices lend the proceedings a gravitas it doesn’t merit. So do the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sitting in uniform as their commander in chief performs.
The whole thing is shameless. The State of the Union address is the tackiest travesty in American political life. Show me a president willing to dispense with the royal extravaganza and resurrect Jefferson’s humble republican practice, and I’ll show you a president who can make America great again.