Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 1/28/2006 [Archive]

Expect Nothing New - State Of The Union

Expect Nothing New - State Of The Union

By Bill Steigerwald

Is it too late to cancel the president's State of the Union address?

On Tuesday night President Bush will go before Congress to give his annual version of how peachy everything is going at home and abroad.

We'll get some fresh metaphors from his speechwriters. We'll hear some new promises the president knows he'll never be able to keep and a bold agenda for the coming year that he knows Congress will never come close to giving him.

We'll probably get a 'surprise' announcement about troop cuts in Iraq in a carefully crafted, selectively spun speech that, by custom, is deliberately leaked a few hours beforehand. Otherwise, Mr. Bush probably will sound a lot like he did in 2005.

You don't remember last year's historic address? You can no longer recite its ringing lines?

It was the one where the president said 'the state of our union is confident and strong' and begged the scoundrels and compulsive spenders of the House and Senate to help him 'build a better world for our children and grandchildren.'

It was also the one where he begged Congress to help him restrain spending, pass tort reform, fix the tax code, reform immigration policy, let families control their own health care -- and, oh yeah, begin the privatizing of Social Security.

The annual message to Congress by the president, which is constitutionally required, has been delivered either in person or in writing 215 times since George Washington spoke the first one in 1790.

It'd take a David McCullough to determine whether the early messages were any less partisan or politically calculated than our contemporary televised ones with their 67 built-in applause lines. But thanks to the Internet, any citizen historian can go to a site like factmonster.com/t/hist/state-of-the-union and read every address ever delivered.

In almost any year you look, you can find high American ideals and fine rhetoric. George Washington set the tone when he urged Congress to help him with 'the arduous task of insuring to our fellow citizens the blessings which they have a right to expect from a free, efficient, and equal government.' Rutherford B. Hayes gets pretty dull in his 1880 rant in favor of federal civil service reform. But wouldn't it be sweet if we could hear President Bush say, 'Our relations with all foreign countries have been those of undisturbed peace, and have presented no occasion for concern as to their continued maintenance'?

And Cal Coolidge's addresses, the first on radio, are full of timeless limited-government prayers that wouldn't be heard again until Ronald Reagan's rousing -- but never consummated -- counter-revolutionary call to roll back Big Government in 1982.

It'd be nice if the president surprises us with something truly radical Tuesday. It'd be great if he declares the war on drugs over or says he'll seek repeal of the 16th Amendment.

But it'll never happen. Like most recent State of the Unions, it'll probably be 99 percent hot political air and instantly forgettable, not to mention a waste of prime network TV time.

It's painfully clear that in our 24/7/52 News & Information Age, the State of the Union address has outlived its original civic usefulness. It's just another regularly scheduled presidential pseudo-event -- a partisan infomercial. It's time for our presidents to resume sending their annual messages to Congress by letter. Or better yet, e-mail.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at bsteigerwald@tribweb.com. © Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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