Editorial: Fewer words would suffice
President George Washington delivered the first State of the Union address — known then by the more modest title of “The president’s message to Congress” — on Jan. 8, 1790, in New York, where the U.S. capital was then situated. Never one to indulge in rhetorical excess, Washington took all of about 1,000 words to apprise Congress of the state of national defense, international affairs, commerce, education — and acknowledge North Carolina as the newest state. His address was long enough to cover key points, short enough to hold people’s attention and let them get to bed at a decent hour.
His successor, John Adams, also managed to keep things short, with SOTU messages averaging about 1,800 words. Unfortunately, modern presidents have strayed far from the example of those early leaders (and in more then conciseness). President Obama’s Tuesday night address totaled more than 6,400 words, taking an hour to deliver — with time for roughly 100 applause lines. (Even so, Obama’s message seems downright spare compared to Bill Clinton’s 1995 SOTU speech, which came in at 9,000-plus words. And in 1981, President Jimmy Carter labored and brought forth a treatise of 33,667 words. Having mercy on his audience, however, he didn’t actually deliver it in person but shipped the text over for someone else to read.)
Even when delivered by someone as eloquent as Obama, the SOTU address has become a bloated, tedious ritual that in itself represents part of why Washington doesn’t work very well these days: It’s more about political theater than hard-nosed assessment of where things really stand, and where they might go. The nation needs a general outline of presidential ambitions, not a doctoral dissertation.
The SOTU extravaganza goes far beyond anything the Constitution requires. It states only that the president 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.”
“From time to time” is vague, with no indication this need be an annual event. And it certainly doesn’t need to be the baroque set-piece it’s become. In addition to encouraging presidents to sharpen their focus, shortening the message could have another benefit. It might reduce the post-speech “analysis” in which pundits work their way through the rhetorical layers like archeologists sifting through an ancient burial site.
Bear in mind that, in Washington’s day, presidential communications were limited to speeches and letters. In the age of websites, Facebook, Youtube and Twitter, presidents have many ways to explain and exhort.
A State of the Union tweet might be cutting it a bit short. But a condensed message might actually have more impact — or at least induce fewer yawns.