Paul Greenberg

"He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."

--Article II, Section 3, U.S. Constitution

"I have noticed that a politician always has a special halo around him, due to the simple fact that he holds a particular office. It has nothing to do whether he is good politician or a complete fool; the position itself lends that person a special aura."

--Vaclav Havel, Czech playwright and president

There comes a time in just about every American president's tenure when his rhetoric must slip into the perfunctory. Only the great presidents and only when they are facing great crises -- a Washington, Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt -- may be able to avoid that kind of rhetorical slippage.

But the perfunctory can be a kind of relief, for it indicates that the crisis is easing. Yet the president must always act, and certainly speak, as if he were in command of events rather than events in command of him. It's almost a duty of the office, and presidents forget it at their and their country's peril. See the sad examples of Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, who were unable to hide their sense of defeat, malaise or whatever the elevated term is for contagious depression.

A president must be a happy warrior, especially when the country isn't happy. That has become especially necessary since the Republic became a mass, televised and internetted democracy. Ronald Reagan, another great leader, had a point when he said he didn't understand how anyone could hope to be president, or at least an effective one, without some training in the theatrical arts. Which helps explain his success: To be great, a president must act greatly, and speak grandly. He must master the American mythos, which can be as corny as a B movie. And yet it has proven exceptionally true in this, yes, exceptional nation.

But there does come a time, usually in the middle of a president's first term, perhaps after the almost customary course correction following his party's setback in midterm elections, when the temptation is to just go through the motions, to deliver a patchwork State of the Union address, and only pretend to be in command.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.