George Will

President McCain would not lack ways and venues for conversing with legislators without reducing Congress to a prop in a skit of president-centrism. Besides, McCain's purpose would be to communicate not with Congress but with the public. A television audience might pay attention, briefly, because of the novelty of a president playing Daniel in the lions' den. But novelty is a perishable attribute, and presidents nowadays are never imperiled Daniels, least of all among legislators, who are rarely lions, other than when abusing unpopular persons (e.g., oil industry executives) testifying in positions of weakness. Jaded by their intimacy with modern presidents, who are incessantly in the nation's living rooms, Americans would soon vote with their remotes against the soon-to-be banal sight of McCain charging up Capitol Hill as his hero Teddy Roosevelt did up San Juan Hill.

Before TR, presidents communicated mostly with the legislative branch, not the public, and mostly in writing. Jeffrey Tulis of the University of Texas, in his mind-opening book "The Rhetorical Presidency," says the Founders' theory of constitutional propriety strongly disapproved of presidential rhetoric used to move the public, other than patriotic orations on ceremonial occasions. Statesmen were supposed to serve as brakes upon, not arousers of, public opinion.

For a century now, however, Americans have embraced the plebiscitary presidency. But the swollen nature of that institution can be made worse, as with McCain's idea, for which there is a kind of precedent.

In a 2003 essay, Tulis said that under George Washington the constitutional requirement that the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union" was a ceremonial dialogue. Washington reported in person, then both houses debated his message and drafted replies. Each was delivered, at different times, to him at his residence and he replied to the replies.

Jefferson considered it monarchical for the president to lecture the legislature, so he submitted a written report, as did every subsequent president until Woodrow Wilson. He was the first president to criticize the Framers' constitutional system of checks and balances as an outmoded impediment to presidents' freedom.

Today the State of the Union address is delivered over the heads of Congress, to the television audience. Truman was the first to deliver it on television, Johnson the first to place it in prime time, where it has become a spectacle that further miniaturizes Congress -- the president's supporters repeatedly leaping up to bray approval while opposition members, their "response" already taped, sit in ostentatious sullenness.

This does not augur well for McCain's plan for another ceremony of inter-branch dialogue. Congress should remind a President McCain that the 16 blocks separating the Capitol from the White House nicely express the nation's constitutional geography.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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