The Right Opinion

Night of Nonsense

By George Will · Feb. 17, 2013

WASHINGTON – In the 12 months we have to steel ourselves for the next State of the Union spectacle, let us count the ways that this spawn of democratic Caesarism – presidency-worship – has become grotesque. It would be the most embarrassing ceremony in the nation's civic liturgy were the nation still capable of being embarrassed by its puerile faith in presidential magic.

The Constitution laconically requires only 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.” Nothing requires “from time to time” to be construed as “every damn year.” Informing and recommending need not involve today's tawdry ritual of wishful thinking by presidents unhinged from political reality, and histrionics by their audiences. And must we be annually reminded that all presidents think that everything they want is “necessary and expedient”?

Some of the blame for this yearly night of nonsense goes to Ronald Reagan. Most, however, goes to Woodrow Wilson. Reagan, who loved entertainment, pioneered the regrettable practice of stocking the House gallery with (usually) admirable people. Wilson, who loved himself, had, as professors often do, a theory, which caused him to reverse Thomas Jefferson's wholesome reticence.

When the Founding generation was developing customs and manners appropriate to a republic, George Washington and John Adams made the mistake of going to Congress to do their constitutional duty of informing and recommending. Jefferson, however, disliked the sound of his voice – such an aversion is a vanishingly rare presidential virtue – and considered it monarchical for the executive to lecture the legislature, the lofty instructing underlings. So he sent written thoughts to Capitol Hill, a practice good enough for subsequent presidents until Wilson in 1913 delivered his message orally, pursuant to the progressives' belief in inspirational and tutelary presidents.

It is beyond unseemly, it is anti-constitutional for senior military officers and, even worse, Supreme Court justices, to attend these political rallies where, with metronomic regularity, legislators of the president's party leap to their feet to whinny approval of every bromide and vow. Members of the other party remain theatrically stolid, thereby provoking brow-furrowing punditry about why John Boehner did not rise (to genuflect? salute? swoon?) when Barack Obama mentioned this or that. Tuesday night, the justices, generals and admirals, looking as awkward as wallflowers at a prom, at least stayed seated.

Except for Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Sam Alito, who stayed away. They missed a clunker of a speech, although the tedium was not much worse than usual, and was redeemed by clarifying three things.

First, Obama's declaration that nothing in his long list of proposed spending “should” – should? – “increase our deficit by a single dime” means there should be commensurate tax increases. Second, now that he has proclaimed that government “must keep the promises we've already made,” only the uneducable can still believe he will consider entitlement reforms. Third, by saying spending cuts under the sequester would be “harsh” and would “devastate” domestic programs, he made applesauce of those two words: The cuts would remove only $85 billion from this year's almost $3.6 trillion budget, and over a decade they would cut just $1.2 trillion from projected spending of $46 trillion. And spending this year would still be well above the post-1945 norm as a percentage of gross domestic product.

Although Obama is a self-proclaimed respecter of science, he does not stoop to empiricism. Understandably. Data are unkind to his assertion that climate change is causing storms to become more severe and drought to become more prevalent. Measured by “accumulated cyclone energy,” hurricane and other tropical cyclone activity is at a three-decade low, and Nature journal reports that globally “there has been little change in drought over the past 60 years.”

Wilson's stroke prevented him from delivering the State of the Union orally in 1919 and 1920, but Warren Harding, not known for a strong sense of propriety, continued the deplorable practice in 1921 and 1922. Calvin Coolidge did so in 1923, four months after becoming president, but not a second time. Wilson's practice was, however, made the norm by the man who had first come to Washington as Wilson's assistant secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt.

State of the Union addresses are now integral to the apotheosis of the presidency. If government is going to be omniprovident, modern presidents are going to be omnipresent, and politics is going to be infantile.

© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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10 Comments

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

Three wise men, who live in reality: Scalia, Thomas, and Alito---all stayed away from the caustic Marx-O-Krat---O'Zilla!!! The left-wing snake oil salesman ,has left only misery and death, to any/all freedoms he can embrace, with demonic ferocity! Like the twisted Reverend Jim Jones, O'zilla advokates drinking poison liquid. When Patriots look at the wave of cancerous obliteration of jobs, we cry out to Providence,---"My God, why have you forsaken US(A)?" Blessed Lenten Season-Uncle George.

Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 6:24 AM

Anton D Rehling in Olympia, WA replied:

Obama has limited powers but Obama is doing all his unconstitutional crap with the support of our Republican congress; they have done nothing that doesn't amount to any more than window dressing to stop this despotic tyranny
Article 1
Section 7 of the US Constitution states in part;
All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.
Section 8
The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States;

Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 2:27 PM

veritaseequitas in Fightertown, USA said:

Don't worry George. It will just be a re-run of this year which was a re-run of the year before, etc., etc. Nothing much changes in the strange land that is Barack Obama's brain.

Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 7:32 AM

Anton D Rehling in Olympia, WA replied:

There is no rerun from last year here. Obama et al agenda is in full swing, arming his civilian forces Dept. of Homeland security with a budget almost as big as the military, 2nd amendment infringement, avoiding having to face Fast and Furious, Benghazi and a multitude of other tyrannical actions that are not reported by MSM. Make no mistake Obama's is action like a dictator on the path of unbridled power.
Remember the 1939 of Germany prior to WWII

Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 2:36 PM

Chas in Maryland replied:

Ditto - Is "O" Hitler reincarnated?

Monday, February 18, 2013 at 11:28 AM

Rob Risko in Michigan said:

Each generation must be reminded of the potential for abuses by those given power. My children are aware of the nature of greed that presents itself in those without a humble spirit. Greed for money, greed for fame, greed for authority, greed for expanding control--it's all really just an extension of pride that breeds greed for power.
I don't find movies to be a valuable use of time...most of the time. I'm also not a big conspiracy theorist. But I do acknowledge a gap in what is discussed behind closed doors by the elitists that are supposed to be our representatives. Sometimes movies can offer a glimpse because it explores a side of reality that we don't like to admit exists.
So far, those who might think they are doing good things for this country based on their feelings, unchecked by morality and law, are only doing things TO this country. Plans have maneuvered many into a corner--and it is deception, "Star Wars" style.
I know this might sound far-fetched but I'm speaking of the pattern NOT the "force" and some nebulous conflict between Jedi and Sith. Real life can be much more frightening when it is happening in your own back yard. The first three episodes reach a sad climax with the following realization:
"So this is how liberty dies...with thunderous applause." (Natalie Portman as Padme, Star War III)

Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 8:56 AM

Old Desert Rat in Las Vegas, NV said:

George, you have taken place of WFBuckley by clearly and succinctly stating the case of your thesis. I appreciate your erudite columns and the fact that you cut to the heart of the argument. Thank you.

Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 2:59 PM

Orf in Pittsburgh said:

We are in the apathy-dependent stage in the cycle of democracy. The following was taken from an essay by Mark Alexander on Dec. 15, 2011.

"This contiguous rise and decline has been characterized as a fatal "Cycle of Democracy". The cycle follows this sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to Liberty (Rule of Law); From Liberty to abundance; From abundance to complacency; From complacency to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage (rule of men).

"However, "In the space of one generation," writes Steyn, "a nation of savers became the world's largest debtors, and a nation of makers and doers became a cheap service economy." Indeed, our country now hosts the most over-educated and under-productive generation in history, and has institutionalized a social subculture demanding government subsidies to compensate for their lack of initiative.

"Big government makes small citizens," Steyn concludes. "A great power can survive a lot of things, but not a mediocrity of spirit. A wealthy nation living on the accumulated cultural capital of a glorious past can dodge its rendezvous with fate, but only for so long."

The only question is how much longer will America survive. With Obamao in command he should be able to finish the cycle within his term. Totalitarianism is just around the corner.

Monday, February 18, 2013 at 2:53 PM

N in Hixson, TN replied:

Americans take a long time to stop crying into their asses, don't they?

Friday, February 22, 2013 at 1:37 AM

Master Gunny in Tifton GA said:

George Will’s musing are always the highlight of my day, a read to be savored and devoured whole. Alas the Republic has degenerated to the extent that entertainment now is the central focus of nearly everything. Logic, keen analysis, and thoughtful projections are lost to a people who view life through the cartoon lenses that have political class and the media have established as the norm. Reality is a harsh teacher, as Mr. Will relentlessly alludes in all of his articles, and at some point all of the makeup, smoke, and mirrors will fail and this nation will again have to pay the piper for allowing politicians to be thespians rather than statesmen.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 8:15 AM