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The Tentacle


January 24, 2007

The State of the Union Address

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Perhaps not since Matt Drudge broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal a couple of days before President Bill Clinton's State of the Union address in January 1998 has there been such an anticipated annual address by an American president.

If you will recall, it was Matt Drudge who wrote that Newsweek had killed the story about the intrepid intern's work after hours for extra credit.

According to George Mason University's "History News Network," on January 21, 1998, The Washington Post ran a front-page story: "Clinton Accused of Urging Aide to Lie/Starr Probes Whether President Told Woman to Deny Alleged Affair to Jones's Lawyer."

Then on January 25, Sam Donaldson commented on ABC's "This Week": "If he's not telling the truth, I think his presidency is numbered in days."

The "History News Network" then chronicles another one of the amazing moments in presidential history when on Tuesday, January 27, in the middle of a presidential misadventure in "foreign affairs," President Clinton gave an address in which he proposed to save Social Security and pay off the national debt and his presidential approval rating "rose to the highest level of his presidency."

If only such a fate would befall President George W. Bush. But, then again, President Clinton had an advantage as the liberal press was always willing to fall over backwards sugarcoating his every miss-step and blunder.

It has been several months since last fall's elections, when the mainstream media was beating the "Democratic Wave Theory" drum that the topic of the president's approval numbers has again surfaced in the press.

For awhile, as the nation awaited the coronation of San Francisco Rep. Nancy Pelosi as the next Speaker of the House, the presidential poll numbers were hushed so as to keep under wraps the largely unreported fact that her numbers, at the time, were lower than the president's.

Ever since the "New Way Forward in Iraq" was announced January 10, the mainstream media has been beating the drum that the honorable thing for the president to do in Iraq would be to surrender and bring the troops home.

For the first time in Mr. Bush's presidency a Democratic Speaker of the House is seated along with the vice-president behind him throughout the speech. And for the first time in his presidency, the august chambers will be under the control of the opposition party.

Throughout history, there always seemed to be a bit of drama and an air of anticipation surrounding the annual address. All of which has its humble beginnings with the simple phrase: "[The President] shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."

And so it was written in the Constitution in Section 3 of Article II that one of the many grand traditions of the United States was born.

Some might refer to the annual exercise in pomp and ceremony as high theatre, and yet others have called for the tradition to end. It is general accepted by history that "the President's Annual Message to Congress," as it was commonly referred to up until 1935, was borrowed from the pomp and ceremony of the English tradition of the King or Queen's annual "Speech from the Throne at the State Opening of Parliament."

Interestingly enough, there is no provision in the Constitution as to address' scope, depth, form, or frequency and, indeed, it has changed a great deal over the years.

The first address was given on January 8, 1790, by President George Washington in New York City, the capital of the United States at the time.

"George Washington rode on a carriage driven by six horses from his house on Cherry Street to Federal Hall in New York."

This spectacle greatly annoyed the anti-monarchists of the time. Although the tradition of delivering the address in person remained through the presidency of John Adams, President Thomas Jefferson was having nothing to do with that approach.

Beginning in 1801, President Jefferson submitted his report - an analysis on the endeavors of his cabinet and his legislative agenda to Congress - in writing and it was read to Congress by a clerk.

He also reinforced the tradition of having the entire speech published in the newspapers. That is something the current mainstream media eschews as it would rather tell you what was in the speech and then tell you what and how to think about the report.

After the presidency of John Adams, it was not until 1913 that a president actually gave the annual report in person, when President Woodrow Wilson did so in spite of the uproar in opposition.

Of course, the decision to deliver the speech in person quickly gave way to another great American tradition: how to be impertinent, unpleasant and obnoxious at an otherwise dignified event, in the pursuit of a cause.

Last year anti-war protester Cindy Sheehan conducted the honors and was escorted from the building. By now, we will know as to whether or not the Democrats will have had Ms. Sheehan as a special guest on the front row.

But in 1916 a group of "suffragettes sitting in the gallery unfurled a large yellow banner with the words, 'Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?' The Capitol Police prepared to arrest the women, but the chief doorkeeper ordered them to leave them alone. An assistant doorkeeper on the floor, however, did manage to pull the banner down" according to Time magazine.

What we do know about the speech, (as this column is being written,) is that the president will attempt to focus on domestic issues in an attempt to call to the nation's attention that the presidency is much more than foreign affairs.

Who knows, maybe his poll numbers will go back up? After all, by focusing our nation on Social Security reform in 1998, President Clinton was able to distract the nation from his misadventures with foreign affairs.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at: kdayhoff@carr.org



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