Remember -- wait, what was his name, the guy who used to be president -- oh yeah, Bill Clinton? He spent the final years of his second term attempting to do that. He did such a marvelous job that on Jan. 9, 2001 -- 11 days before he even left office, the Brookings Institution hosted a forum called “Assessing Bill Clinton’s Legacy: How Will History Remember Him?”
Richard Haass, one of the panelists, was unimpressed. “I would argue that Bill Clinton lacks any foreign policy legacy. He has none,” Haass, head of the Council on Foreign Relations, said. Since Clinton didn’t do anything amazing in his final two weeks (except pardon Marc Rich), Haass’ verdict will probably be history’s verdict as well.
Next week, without even trying, President Bush has a chance to leave a legacy of his own. It won’t be through what he says, but how he says it. You see, on Jan. 31, the president will give his annual State of the Union address. First, some background.
The Constitution mandates that the president, “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” There’s nothing in there about bringing together both houses of Congress to listen to the speech, and in fact nothing requiring he give a speech at all.
In 1801, President Jefferson decided the pomp surrounding a big speech would make him seem like royalty, so he printed his message and sent it to lawmakers. Dozens of presidents followed suit for 112 years, until Woodrow Wilson launched the modern State of the Union (a phrase first used by FDR) era in 1913 by delivering the speech in person before Congress.
In recent years, the speech has become a partisan playground. Lawmakers in the president’s party jump to their feet every two sentences, drowning him out with applause and disrupting any flow the address might have. Meanwhile, members of the opposing party sit pouting with their arms crossed across their chests. Even as political theater, it’s amateur hour.
Here’s where a potential Bush legacy comes in. He can change our view of State of the Union addresses by changing the way he delivers the address. Bush recently admitted that he’s never been a big fan of big speeches. “I want you to know I can remember what it was like to sit through lectures,” he announced during the Landon Lecture at Kansas State University. “I didn’t particularly like it.”
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