By Robert Lehrman
Even Richard M. Nixon rebelled.
This pragmatic president told his speechwriters in 1970 that he didn’t want the traditional “laundry list” State of the Union speech. No “pragmatism,” he insisted. “I want an idea speech.”
At one point, Nixon put his feet on the desk and said, “Good God. Agriculture in a State of the Union isn’t worth a damn.”
He wasn’t the only one who disliked the 222-year tradition that President Barack Obama carries on Tuesday night.
It’s common for a president’s enemies to skewer what we now call SOTU—“platitudes, platitudes, platitudes,” one described Obama’s last year.
But plenty of others hate it, too. And for the usual reasons—it’s:
Dishonest: No matter the real state of the union, presidents always assert it’s strong. Despite the economy, Obama said those very words (“our union is strong”) in 2010, saying he’d “never been more hopeful.”
Dumbed down: One academic has blasted the SOTU for abandoning the complex language of George Washington—about the reading level of a college graduate—for the language of grade-school kids. Last year, Obama’s was rated 8.7. (This op-ed? 8.0.)
Theatrical: “Policy demands packaged in pomp and circumstance,” writes one blogger. The ceremonial parade in, the scripted applause lines, the saccharine tributes to guests in the balcony. That’s a lot of pomp.
Endless: One White House speechwriter asked his mom for advice before writing one. “Keep it short,” she said. Washington’s was 1,087 words—a few hundred longer than this piece. In 2000, Clinton’s was 7,452. Last year? 6,800.
There are other complaints: partisanship, a disgracefully short opposition response and, yes, platitudes. So should we all ignore what Obama says on Tuesday? No.
The fact is, this imperfect tradition deserves two cheers, at least. It is—gasp!—useful. Anyone listening or reading on Tuesday can learn a lot. Because the speech is a:
Guide for what’s ahead: Like movie trailers, the State of the Union previews what will happen. Really. In the past 50 years, presidents averaged about 36 requests per SOTU. Even with divided governments, about 41 percent on average become law. Disregard the platitudes. Find the policy. Like Waldo—it’s there.
Statement of broad themes: The address lays out big themes that divide the country. Woodrow Wilson, who restored the SOTU to oratory rather than a written message, did it partly to show he was as vigorous as his Rough Rider predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt. He also did it because he believed in activist government—calling for things that left even Democrats aghast. Obama will also outline ways he favors activist government, setting the stage for next fall’s debate.
Blueprint Americans can understand: Is the reading level of today’s SOTU too low? Not if you think most of the 40 million or so Americans tuning in deserve to grasp it. Americans average a seventh-grade level. Four out of ten Americans would have trouble reading even last year’s speech. How many more should we cut out? Really, that most Americans will be able to watch, read—and understand—Tuesday night’s speech is a virtue.
Sometimes a really historic document: Most of the 220 SOTUs aren’t worth reading now. But some are, and for good reason. Take 1822, when President James Monroe announced what’s now called the Monroe Doctrine. Or 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt unveiled the Four Freedoms.
Or 1961, when a speechwriter named Ralph Williams wrote a line that President Dwight Eisenhower liked. Now Ike’s most memorable line is that warning about the “military-industrial complex.”
And that laundry list?
“People like laundry lists,” says former chief Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet, who helped write several SOTUs.
Why? For the same reason Civil War soldiers, who originated the phrase, started making them: to keep track of clothes they needed back from the cleaners. Sometimes we need a list of the tasks ahead—even if the prose needs work.
Back in 1970, White House speechwriters were frantically trying to give their anti-laundry list boss what he wanted. Against drugs in theory, the administration let White House doctors give speechwriter Ray Price the drug many anti-war activists loved: speed. After two amphetamine-fueled all-nighters, Price saw the result. His desk appeared both in front of him—and against the far wall. Luckily, a young aid Richard Blumenthal, now a Democratic senator from Connecticut—saw him safely home.
“It was unsettling,” Price said.
When Blumenthal takes his seat in the House chamber Tuesday night, expect him to draw on decades of experience to examine Obama’s version of America’s laundry list. We should, too.
Because buried inside the sentences and paragraphs of chaff, we’ll find what, in 1970, Nixon wanted: ideas.
Maybe even about agriculture.
Robert Lehrman served as a White House chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore. He is author of The Political Speechwriter’s Companion and an adjunct professor at American University, where he teaches speechwriting, and co-runs the blog Punditwire. This article originally appeared in Politico.
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