The increasingly puerile spectacle of presidential State of the Union addresses is indicative of the state of the union and is unnecessary: The Constitution requires only that the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union." But a reaction may be brewing against these embarrassing events. Speaking in Alabama, Chief Justice John Roberts said "to the extent that" this occasion "has degenerated into a political pep rally," he is "not sure why we’re there." He was referring to Supreme Court justices. But why is anyone there?
Roberts was responding to a question concerning the kerfuffle about Barack Obama’s January address, wherein Obama criticized — and flagrantly mischaracterized — a recent Supreme Court decision that loosened limits on political speech. The decision neither overturned "a century of law" nor conferred an entitlement on foreign corporations to finance U.S. candidates. Nevertheless, the Democratic donkeys arrayed in front of Obama leapt onto their hind legs and brayed in unison, while the six justices who were present sat silently. Justice Samuel Alito, in an act of lese majeste, appeared to mutter "not true" about Obama’s untruths.
When Republican presidents deliver these addresses, Republican legislators, too, lurch up and down like puppets on strings. And Congress wonders why it is considered infantile.
Many conservatives were congressional supremacists until Ronald Wilson Reagan arrived possessing the rhetorical skills requisite for a Wilsonian presidency. His unfortunate filigree on the dramaturgy of State of the Union addresses was to begin the practice of stocking the House gallery with ordinary but exemplary people whose presence touches the public’s erogenous zones.
Next year, Roberts and the rest of the justices should stay away from the president’s address. So should the uniformed military, who are out of place in a setting of competitive political grandstanding. For that matter, the 535 legislators should boycott these undignified events. They would, if there were that many congressional grown-ups averse to being props in the childishness of popping up from their seats to cheer, or remaining sullenly seated in semi-pouts, as the politics of the moment dictates.