George Will

In 1913, however, Wilson, whose guiding principle was that the world could not hear too much from him, delivered his report in person. He thought the Founders had foolishly saddled the nation with a Constitution of checks and balances that made government sluggish or paralytic. Hence charismatic presidential leadership was needed to arouse public opinion that could compel Congress to bow to the president's will. The Founders thought statesmanship should restrain public opinion. Wilson's watery Caesarism preached that presidents should spur that dangerous stallion. He just knew he could control it. He learned otherwise when trying to ratify the Versailles Treaty.

George Washington considered Congress "the first wheel of the government, a wheel which communicates motion to all the rest." Wilson thought the presidency is the only office able to, or even entitled to, impart movement to the government.

Many conservatives were congressional supremacists until Ronald Wilson Reagan arrived possessing the rhetorical skills requisite for a Wilsonian presidency. His unfortunate filigree on the dramaturgy of State of the Union addresses was to begin the practice of stocking the House gallery with ordinary but exemplary people whose presence touches the public's erogenous zones.

The prolixity that is the defining characteristic of modern presidents blurs the distinction between campaigning and governing, and positions the presidency at the center of the nation's consciousness. This gives presidents delusions of omnipotence, and makes Americans susceptible to perpetual disappointment and political dyspepsia.

We could take one small step toward restoring institutional equilibrium by thinking as Jefferson did about State of the Union addresses. Justice Antonin Scalia has stopped going to them because justices "sit there like bumps on a log" in the midst of the partisan posturing -- the political pep rally that Roberts described. Sis boom bah humbug.

Next year, Roberts and the rest of the justices should stay away from the president's address. So should the uniformed military, who are out of place in a setting of competitive political grandstanding. For that matter, the 535 legislators should boycott these undignified events. They would, if there were that many congressional grown-ups averse to being props in the childishness of popping up from their seats to cheer, or remaining sullenly seated in semi-pouts, as the politics of the moment dictates.

In the unlikely event that Obama or any other loquacious modern president has any thoughts about the State of the Union that he does not pour forth in the torrential course of his relentless rhetoric, he can mail those thoughts to Congress. The Postal Service needs the business.


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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