Tuesday, January 29, 2019

"The State of the Union is not Good"

If President Trump had had any prior political experience, and if he knew anything about how government works, and if he had behaved himself the way a president is supposed to behave, he would be most likely be giving his State of the Union tonight as originally scheduled, solemnly addressing not just Congress but a TV audience the size of which would be every attention-seeking celebrity's dream. 

After 35 days of pointless posturing at the expense of thousands of ordinary citizens, the President surrendered to political reality. The Government has now reopened, and soon the President will belatedly get to give his Sate of the Union Address. 

Unfortunately, such speeches (complete with all the jumping up and down that accompanies them) are so spectacularly predictable that the most interesting thing about this year's State of the Union may be precisely the fact that it is not happening on schedule.

Obligated by the Constitution 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, recent Presidents have happily informed Congress that the State of our Union is "good" or "strong" or some other such platitude. I can only remember one exception, which is memorable for precisely that reason. 

On January 15, 1975, President Gerald Ford - thanks to Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal an Accidental President since the previous August - addressed the 94th Congress. He recounted how 26 years earlier as a freshman congressman he had listened to President Harry Truman announce, "I am happy to report to this 81st Congress that the state of the Union is good. Our Nation is better able than ever before to meet the needs of the American people, and to give them their fair chance in the pursuit of happiness. [It] is foremost among the nations of the world in the search for peace." Ford then continued: "Today, that freshman Member from Michigan stands where Mr. Truman stood, and I must say to you that the state of the Union is not good." He then went on to list some of the various problems then besetting the country - among them unemployment, recession, inflation, the deficit, the national debt, energy dependence, and "politics as usual" in Washington.

Well, we survived the seventies, but that decade's political failures culminated in the disastrous election of 1980 election and the consequent undermining of what was left of the post-war political, social, and cultural consensus that from 1945 to 1970 had supported what was probably the most broadly and equally shared period of progress in American history. And now we have reaped the whirlwind caused by our retreat from the ethos of that era, of which the mid-1970s crises President Ford acknowledged have proved to be but a harbinger.

Right now our country could really use a serious State of the Union speech - not the usual platitudinous performance punctuated by predictable congressional jumping up and down. Right now our country could really use an honest assessment of the political, social, cultural, and moral mess we are in, honestly assessed so as to invite some serious attempt to address our collective failings and somehow start over again.

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