A Better State of the Union Speech

Posted: Jan 27, 2006 9:05 AM
It’s important to leave a legacy.

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.”

His comment was well received by the students at KSU, and that should give the White House an idea: Instead of giving the State of the Union in front of Congress, how about in front of an audience of college students?

President Bush can be funny when he’s in front of the right audience. He certainly had them in stitches during the Landon Lecture. The country would get a better picture of the president if he gave his annual address in front of a college crowd. After the speech he could send the text to Capitol Hill, which would fulfill his Constitutional requirement.

Of course, there are other ways to get the message out.

In years to come, President Bush or one of his successors should try releasing the State of the Union as a podcast that members of Congress (and the rest of us) could download and listen to at their leisure. Imagine all the Republican members gathered in the House gym, working out while listening to the president. They could get their exercise as they jump up and down, but they wouldn’t actually be interrupting him. It’s a win-win.

And what’s wrong with e-mail? It seems everyone in Washington uses a handheld e-mail device. The president could send off the address as a blast e-mail. Oh, and he should begin it with “re:,” as spammers always do. That’ll make sure it gets read.

Imagine, instead of watching the president deliver the speech, Americans could watch highly paid network anchors read it off their BlackBerrys. Reading is, after all, what they get paid to do.

Finally, the president could revive Jefferson’s tradition. At least once, he should simply send his State of the Union up to lawmakers by courier. Instead of lecturing them, he could go fishing or something.

Imagine -- a less-imperial presidency. That would be a legacy any president could brag about, and one that would last far beyond most of the programs we’ll hear celebrated on Tuesday night.