Cancel the State of the Union
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The president of the United States is scheduled to deliver his State of the Union message before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday evening. In the audience will be not only several hundred legislators, but also diplomats, military officers, Supreme Court justices, and other dignitaries. The three major broadcast networks are planning to broadcast the event live, as are CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, Telemundo, and Univision.
But it’s not too late to make a change, and I would like to suggest one: Cancel the speech.
My plea has nothing to do with the current occupant of the White House, and everything to do with the grotesque inappropriateness of treating remarks by an American president — any American president — with more pomp, spectacle, and genuflection than the British monarch’s Speech from the Throne. President Trump wishes to make America great again? One way he can do so is to put an end to the most un-democratic, un-republican debauch in American political life.
Presidents are obliged by the Constitution to periodically “give to the Congress information of the State of the Union” and to “recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” The first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, appeared before Congress in person, even though there was no constitutional requirement that they give a speech.
But President No. 3, Thomas Jefferson, abhorred what he called the “pompous cavalcade” to Capitol Hill, which he found disturbingly royalist and pretentious. So he let it be known very early in his presidency that his first annual message to Congress — and “all subsequent ones” — would be in writing. As I wrote in a column some years ago, the change was widely applauded.
“All the pomp and pageantry, which once dishonored our republican institutions, are buried in the tomb of the Capulets,” wrote one admiring Pennsylvania congressman. “Instead of an address to both houses of Congress made by a president who was drawn to the Capitol by six horses, and followed by the creatures of his nostrils, and gaped at by a wondering multitude, we had a message delivered by his private secretary, containing every thing necessary for a great and good man to say.”
Jefferson’s innovation became the unvarying norm. For the next 112 years, every American president — Democrats, Republicans, and Whigs — fulfilled the constitutional mandate by sending written reports to Congress.
Unfortunately, what was good enough for Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t good enough for Woodrow Wilson.
The 28th president, imperious and antirepublican, disdained the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution and believed firmly in the supremacy of the executive. (Kevin D. Williamson once called Wilson, with only mild exaggeration, “Princeton’s answer to Benito Mussolini.”) By 1913, the understanding that presidents didn’t intrude on congressional turf had become a deeply rooted element of the capital’s culture. Wilson’s insistence on reverting to the pre-Jeffersonian practice was unsettling, as I noted in the column:
“All official Washington was agape last night over the decision of the president to go back to the long-abandoned custom,” reported The Washington Post on April 7, 1913. Considering some of Wilson’s other achievements — he segregated Washington, D.C., opposed female suffrage, approved a law to sterilize the disabled, screened the racist “Birth of a Nation” in the White House, championed a federal income tax, and endorsed a ruthless civil-liberties crackdown — it would be stretch to describe Wilson’s revival of the in-person State of the Union address as his worst offense. But it’s on the list.
The worst thing about the State of the Union extravaganza is how it fuels the cult of the presidency. It intensifies the delusion — the dangerous, embarrassing, and anti-American delusion — that the president is our Caesar, and that even his most mundane, empty, or predictable pronouncements must command our rapt and worshipful attention. Jefferson thought it was vulgar and royalist for presidents in the 1790s to sweep into the Capitol and hold forth before the assembled lawmakers. Imagine how horrified he would be today, when TV cameras invest the speech with almost religious significance, as senators and representatives line the aisle in hopes of being greeted by the conquering president, and then spend much of the evening leaping to their feet to applaud this or that phrase in his text.
The whole thing is odious. It should make us wince. Presidency-worship may be normal in Russia, Congo, and North Korea, but why do we accept it here? Where is our self-respect?
Well, count me out. I haven’t sat through a State of the Union address in at least a dozen years, and I have no intention of watching this year’s either. But I’ll make a promise: If the president cancels his appearance and instead sends his remarks to Congress in writing, I’ll leap to my feet in a standing ovation.
Truman’s party turns away from Israel
As an American Zionist, I’ve always thought US support for Israel should transcend politics. I want the Middle East’s valiant little democracy to be able to count on the friendship of Americans across the political divide. There is no shortage of issues on which Democrats battle Republicans, but when it comes to defending our most loyal and stable ally in one of the world’s worst neighborhoods, conservatives, liberals, and centrists alike ought to make common cause.
Sadly, reality doesn’t square with my preferences.
The Pew Research Center last week released a new survey of American attitudes in the Middle East. The headline was stark: “Republicans and Democrats Grow Even Further Apart in Views of Israel, Palestinians.” Respondents were asked where their sympathies lie in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and — as has been the case for decades — they expressed support for Israel by a 3-1 ratio. According to Pew’s summary, “46% of Americans say they sympathize more with the Israelis [and] 16% say they sympathize more with the Palestinians. . . . The overall balance of opinion has fluctuated only modestly since 1978, when 45% said they sympathized more with Israel, 14% with the Palestinians and 42% could not decide.”
So in the aggregate, US support for Israel is as strong as ever.
But below the surface, America’s pro-Israel consensus has long since split along the same left-vs.-right fault line that has so sharply polarized so many areas of politics and policy. Support for Israel among Republicans and conservatives has never been so steep; support among Democrats and liberals is vanishing.
Nearly 8 in 10 Republicans (79%) sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians, while just 6% sympathize more with the Palestinians; another 7% say they sympathize with both or neither, while 9% say they do not know.
[But] Democrats are divided. . . . Currently, 27% of Democrats say they sympathize more with Israel, while 25% say they sympathize more with the Palestinians; another 23% say they sympathize with neither or both sides and one-quarter (25%) say they don’t know.
Among self-identified liberal Democrats, meanwhile, support for Israel is even lower: just 19%. Among self-identified conservative Republicans, it’s even higher: 81%.
The gap between the two parties in their sympathy for Israel is the widest it has been since pollsters first began asking the question in 1978. Considering how many other issues there are on which Democrats and Republicans sharply diverge, the gulf separating them on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might not seem so unusual. Except for history. Support for the Jewish state was once a pillar of Democratic Party principle. From President Harry Truman, who extended diplomatic recognition to Israel minutes after the nation proclaimed its independence in 1948, to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, and Hubert Humphrey, Democrats used to be among Israel’s proudest defenders.
As foreign-affairs analyst Joshua Muravchik wrote in his 2014 book, “Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel,” during the period leading up to the Six-Day War in 1967, “Israel was above all a cause championed by liberals.” So passionate was this embrace that even ardent Democratic opponents of the Vietnam War like John Kenneth Galbraith and Senator Eugene McCarthy voiced support for US military action on Israel’s behalf.
That Democratic Party is now barely more than a memory. Caroline Glick wrote in The Jerusalem Post last week that support for the world’s only Jewish state is no longer tenable in a party dominated by a “progressive” that regards Israel as an imperialist villain. An excerpt:
Today Democratic presidential hopefuls like New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker have discarded their previous support for Israel to satisfy their party’s increasingly radical, anti-Israel base.
The Democrats’ move to the Left has caused them to ascribe increasingly to identity politics as the basis for policy-making. Identity politics dictate a pecking order of victims. The greater a group’s status as victim, the more the Democrats support it. In this taxonomy, Israel has been determined to be an oppressor, and the Palestinians are defined as the victims.
The problem with identity politics, at least insofar as Israel is concerned, is that there is no basis in fact for the determination that Israel is the bad guy and the Palestinians are the good guys. To the contrary: As the steep rise in Republican support over the past 17 years demonstrates, the more you know, the greater the likelihood that you will support Israel.
During the fall of 2015, as candidates were streaming into New Hampshire to campaign for the primary that would launch the 2016 presidential campaign, I had a conversation with a political advisor to Jeb Bush. We were talking about the issues that seemed especially salient to voters, and I was struck by an observation he made: “There is nothing more certain to win enthusiastic applause from a Republican audience,” he told me, “than for a candidate to pledge rock-solid support for Israel.” Pro-Israel sentiment had become virtually unanimous in GOP circles, he said. The latest Pew data bear him out.
But on the other side of the political spectrum, the longstanding affection for the Middle East’s doughty Jewish democracy has shriveled away. At the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, left-wing delegates hoisted the Palestinian flag to cheers during the vote on the party’s platform.
To be sure, most Democrats have not gone so far as to embrace Israel’s enemies. But great numbers of them no longer embrace Israel, either. America may still be the most pro-Israel country on earth. But the bulwark of that support is on the right. If Harry Truman could see his party today, he wouldn’t recognize it.
Demand cobalt independence!
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Congo is poised to double the taxes it levies on cobalt, a metal essential to the manufacture of batteries used in cell phones and electric cars:
The Central Africa country holds as much as two-thirds of the world’s cobalt, putting it at the center of a growing piece of the global economy. The price of cobalt has doubled since the beginning of 2017 as mining, technology, and auto companies rush to secure supplies of a metal that is a crucial ingredient in the lithium-ion battery.
Surely this puts America in an intolerable situation. Surely politicians and activists should be in an uproar. How can the United States allow itself to remain hooked on a commodity like cobalt when the primary supplier is a country as backward and unreliable as Congo? As a matter of national security, shouldn’t Americans embark on a crash program to achieve “cobalt independence” — either by a massive effort to exploit cobalt deposits on US territory, or by rapidly developing a replacement for lithium-ion batteries? With cell phones so indispensable to modern economic life, isn’t it foolhardy to keep putting our faith in the global cobalt market?
I admit that I know nothing about cobalt mining. But for as long as I can remember, conventional wisdom has insisted that America must break its “addiction” to oil and free itself from reliance on petroleum imports. Why not cobalt?
Republican and Democratic presidents have for decades vowed to wean the US economy from foreign oil. In 1974, Richard Nixon declared energy independence to be a “national goal” — by 1980, he swore, “the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need.” A few years later, Gerald Ford proclaimed a similar objective. Then Jimmy Carter did. Then Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Last year, President Trump jumped on the bandwagon. He issued an executive order that called for “promoting energy independence” by removing restrictions on the extraction of “domestically produced energy resources,” including oil and natural gas.
Needless to say, the United States has neither weaned itself off petroleum nor become “energy independent.” According to the Energy Information Administration, the United States in 2016 imported approximately 10.1 million barrels of petroleum per day from about 70 countries. About one-fourth of the oil consumed by the United States came from abroad. Even now, when America has become the world’s No. 1 producer of petroleum and natural gas, we still haven’t come close to achieving energy independence.
Nor will we ever.
In a world of globalization and ceaseless trade flows, it is absurd to imagine that the world’s largest economy can break its “addiction” to imports of any important commodity. Even as the United States is becoming the planet’s foremost producer of fossil fuels, it remains dependent on other energy producers, too — and they remain dependent on us. The same is true of food: Americans grow crops and raise livestock in such abundance that we are the world’s leading food source. But we import vast amounts of food, too.
Just as “energy independence” and “food independence” are chimeras, so too is “computer independence.” And “automobile independence.” And “clothing independence.” And “lumber independence.”
And, to return to where I started, “cobalt independence.”
For better or for worse, Americans will always need to acquire goods and services from producers beyond our borders. Economic autarky is delusional and dangerous, a prescription not for strength and security but for poverty and isolation (see North Korea). On the whole, the human race today is wealthier, healthier, better fed, better educated, and more peaceful than it has ever been. It didn’t get that way through the frantic pursuit of economic independence, but through networks of inter dependence. Societies rely on each other for everything from microchips and fresh flowers to aircraft and books. That reliance makes us richer and more secure, in ways that relying on ourselves alone never can.
Site to See
Amid the internet’s vast ocean of tripe and twaddle, some websites are extraordinary islands of useful, organized, interesting, and, above all, focused information. I don’t know how the people who create these sites find the time and dedication to assemble and maintain them, but I’m tremendously grateful that they do. Starting today, I’ll share such a website each week in “Site to See,” with the goal of alerting more readers to one of those online havens of knowledge that show off the internet at its best.
This week’s site is Dr. Mardy’s Dictionary of Metaphorical Quotations (URL: http://www.drmardy.com/dmdmq/). It’s a digital database of metaphorical quotations — some 30,000 metaphors, similes, and analogies, sorted into more than 1,200 categories. Here is just one of those 30,000, a remark by Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus: “Getting information off the internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant” (2001).
Want to recommend a Site to See? Send a note to email@example.com, and put “Site to See” in the subject line.
My Sunday column was about the ongoing controversy at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass. The 115-year-old institution, faced with financial crisis, announced a plan last summer to sell 40 pieces of art from its collection of more than 40,000 items, using the proceeds to put the museum on a stable financial footing, renovate its building, and improve its exhibit spaces. The plan set off a great kerfuffle, enraging critics who consider it a hanging offense for a museum ever to “monetize” its holdings. Not me — I’m with those who regard it as prudent and reasonable to sell a handful of items in order to protect the greatest asset of all: the museum’s open doors. After months of watching the dispute from afar, I headed to Pittsfield to see the Berkshire Museum for myself, and wrote about what I saw in the column.
The last line
“But the boy, Therem’s son, said stammering, ‘Will you tell us how he died? — Will you tell us about the other worlds out among the stars — the other kinds of men, the other lives?’ ” Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Left Hand of Darkness” (1969)