By Tuesday night, everyone this side of the Cape Verde Islands will know that this marks Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address because, in technical terms, his speech to Congress last February didn’t count. It’s one of those little grace notes that TV pundits love to add in grave voices normally reserved for royal weddings and state funerals.
More than any president since Woodrow Wilson resumed the tradition of personally delivering State of the Union addresses in 1913, Trump is ill-suited to formal oratory. Whenever the president recites a speech off a teleprompter, he sounds like an English-as-a-second-language student reading a practice text for the first time.
Yet, Bill Clinton aside, addressing a joint session of Congress does not lend itself to improvisational jazz riffs. So White House speechwriters — anonymous drudges under Trump — will be required to give voice to the president’s ill-defined legislative agenda.
When it comes to speechwriting, it may be hard for Trump to call upon the authors of his “American carnage” inaugural address.
Steve Bannon is so buried in the political underworld that not even Dante could find him.
And it is unlikely that immigration hard-liner Stephen Miller has had time to face a blank computer with nothing on it but the header “SOTU Draft.” After all, Miller has been busy feuding with Sen. Lindsey Graham and cringing every time Trump suggests that the Dreamers should be treated with “love.”
For a White House ghostwriter, there is an irresistible temptation to look at what prior presidents have said on similar occasions. As a result, the Trump Ghosts (sounds like the MSNBC version of a horror movie) know that there are structural continuities to the State of the Union address — no matter the politics or the persona of the president delivering it.
The big question
Every president has felt compelled to directly respond to the command embedded in Article II, Section 3, of the Constitution: “He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union.”
That question is almost always answered with upbeat language at the beginning of the speech.
At the turn of this century, Bill Clinton allowed himself some chest-thumping as he boasted, “My fellow Americans, the state of our union is the strongest it has ever been.”
Two years later, in 2002, with Americans still reeling from the shock of the Sept. 11 attacks, George W. Bush defiantly declared, “As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers. Yet the state of our union has never been stronger.”
Barack Obama posed — but never directly answered — the question when he addressed the Congress in 2010 with the economy still in tatters from the financial collapse. In 2011, Obama broke tradition and waited until the very end of the speech to announce, “Our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong.”
The challenge for the Trump speechwriters is to assess the state of the union in a way that satisfies a president whose ego is inflated to levels not seen since Zimbabwe printed 100-trillion-dollar bank notes. Merely claiming, like Clinton, that “the state of the union has never been stronger” seems like an understatement by Trumpian standards.
So here’s some suggested language for Trump: “Never has the state of the union been worse than when I took office a year ago. And if I had not won a historic landslide over Hillary Clinton, the whole world would be laughing at us now and calling us a toilet-like country.
“But instead, when I was at Davos a few days ago, world leaders kept saying to me, ‘How did you do it, Mr. President? Everybody thought America was on the ropes.’
“So I can say tonight that the state of the union is great. And America is, with Donald J. Trump as president, the greatest country in world history — and that even counts Rome under Julius Caesar.”
The view from the balcony
Ever since Ronald Reagan in 1982 began the tradition of introducing special guests sitting with the first lady in the audience, presidents have tried to match the Gipper’s aplomb in pulling off the balcony act. And like Elvis impersonators, the Reagan copycats have seen the act grow stale in its annual incarnations.
Trump in his speech to Congress last February tried his own version of the balcony scene. The president’s guests ranged from Maureen Scalia (“Her late, great husband, Antonin Scalia, will forever be a symbol of American justice”) to the families of California police officers who had been “gunned down by an illegal immigrant with a criminal record.”
But it will take more than that in the State of the Union to make this tired trope great again. What Trump needs are surprise guests of the jaw-dropping variety. Kim Jong Un would be perfect if the logistics of getting him to Washington on short notice were not so complicated.
Even better in TV terms (and what other standard is there for judging a Trump speech?) would be if the president invited Stormy Daniels to sit in the first lady’s box.
There would be an obvious policy component to such a gesture, as Trump could cite Ms. Daniels as part of his push for federal legislation to strengthen the legal safeguards surrounding nondisclosure agreements.
But the touch that even Reagan couldn’t have equaled would be if Trump in a no-hard-feelings gesture invited Robert Mueller as his very special prosecutor guest.
You can picture Trump saying, “Bob, I want you to come down from the balcony and join me onstage. That way, instead of fake news, you can tell Congress and the media directly that there was no collusion. None. Zilch. And if you want, I’ll even answer a few questions right here under oath.”
The policy component
Nothing in the Constitution requires a president to talk about legislation in his State of the Union. All that Article II, Section 3, says is that the president may “recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
As anyone in the White House will tell you (not for direct quotation, of course), it is never “necessary and expedient” for Trump to talk policy. If his speechwriters put in an immigration section, the president would probably contradict himself in every sentence.
State of the Union night is Washington’s version of the Oscars. And, as Hollywood learned long ago, you keep the boring awards off the prime-time show.
So if you want issues, tune in at 3 p.m. or elect Hillary president. But in Trump’s reality-show America, the State of the Union is too important to squander on legislative nonsense.