Alex Massie

The Presidential Talkathon

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Gene Healy, author of The Cult of the Presidency (highly recommended, incidentally), resurrects one of my favourite Never-Gonna-Happen-Ploys: the President should make fewer speeches and deliver the State of the Union address in writing, not in person:

The "permanent campaign" that dominates modern presidential politics would have appalled our forefathers. Accepting the 1844 Democratic nomination, James K. Polk described the custom of the time: "the office of president of the United States should neither be sought nor declined."

When 19th-century candidates spoke publicly, they sometimes felt compelled to apologize, as 1872 Democratic contender Horace Greeley did, for breaking "the unwritten law of our country that a candidate for President may not make speeches."

From Washington to Jackson, presidents gave about three speeches a year on average. In his first year in office, President Clinton gave over 600. Things have changed, but it's not clear they've changed for the better...

In early SOTUs, presidents rarely went on at Castro-like length. George Washington's first SOTU was a humble affair, just over 1000 words, devoid of imperious demands for congressional action.

That wasn't humble enough for President Thomas Jefferson, however, who disapproved of his two predecessors giving the SOTU in person before Congress assembled. Jefferson saw that practice as "an English habit, tending to familiarize the public with monarchical ideas," much like the British king's "speech from the throne."

So our third president wrote out his SOTU speeches and had them hand-delivered to Congress. The Jeffersonian custom held for over 100 years, until the power-hungry Woodrow Wilson overthrew it. Of 219 SOTUs, only 71 have been delivered in person.

But, as the Economist laments:

Mr Healy might as well be making the case for putting the nation's toothpaste back into its surplus tubes. We live in a media-saturated age, and if the president wasn't talking so much, someone would be talking. Most likely it would be members of Congress, largely members of the opposition who can count on talk radio to spread their message. There is an arms race in cant: the president has to push his way into America's living rooms, because to not talk is to forfeit the race.

This, of course, has the granite-tough merit of being true. Nonetheless...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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