Until this week, President Trump and several hundred million other Americans assumed he would be coming to the Capitol to give his State of the Union address this month.
That annual update was based on 230 years of tradition, recently renewed by the invitation of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
And isn’t that appropriate? Many other federal functions are either grounded or up in the air as we mark four weeks of the longest partial government shutdown in history.
Pelosi says the usual SOTU ritual is risky and inappropriate when so much of the federal government is shut down and many employees are working without pay. Trump says then the same applies to overseas travel by members of Congress. And Trump backed that up by canceling his own administration’s delegation to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — grounding his Treasury secretary, secretary of state, commerce secretary, trade representative and deputy chief of staff.
All this may be nothing more than the latest partisan volleying over the Southern border wall Trump wants funded and the shutdown. But it does raise the question of security as it pertains to the State of the Union speech, and that raises the question of the value of the speech itself.
Remember we are talking about crowding the president and vice president, and all the members of the Cabinet, the Congress and the Supreme Court into a single interior space — the House chamber.
As a moment of vulnerability for the national leadership, this surpasses even the inauguration. That is why one Cabinet member is kept away each year so as to maintain the chain of presidential succession (see Designated Survivor, Seasons 1 through 3).
For the record, the Trump administration says all the usual Secret Service and Department of Homeland Security folks who would work this event are ready to serve this year as always. They’re required to, in fact. Even unpaid. Pelosi says those people should not be asked to do that under the circumstances. And she has a point.
So, just maybe, a delay makes sense this time around. (We had one in 1986 after the space shuttle Challenger blew up.)
Or, just maybe, having this annual shindig “just the way we have always have had it” does not make sense anymore.
There is a growing sense in America that old ways of doing things do not always make sense anymore. That applies to the way we go shopping or go to the movies or go to school, all of which we can do now without going anywhere.
So what about this thing, the SOTU? Is it something everyone really has to physically attend, or is there an adaptation available? Could this annual monster meetup near the National Mall just, well, go away?
The president told supporters in a fundraising email Thursday that it was illegitimate for Pelosi to mess with the date and manner of his address to the nation. Other Republicans were also swift to say the event belongs to the people and not the Democrats’ boss lady, with the top Republican in the House suggesting Pelosi was playing politics.
But would we miss the hour-plus of speechifying and unspontaneous ovations from one side of the aisle or the other? Would we be the poorer without those hours of pregame and postgame punditry?
To be sure, something would be lost if the one truly bipartisan, bicameral, multibranch and multi-everything confab of the year disappears from the nation’s capital.
But, for roughly half of our history, this ritual did not require anyone to go anywhere.
For more than a century, it was understood that a president’s annual report to Congress would be a written document sent up to the Capitol. That way of doing things began with Thomas Jefferson in 1801, who thought making a personal appearance seemed too royal – too much like the King of England barking his orders to Parliament.
(Jefferson was also pushing back on the formalism of his two Federalist predecessors, George Washington and John Adams, who had established the idea of an annual reports and made theirs in person.)
The idea of a written report then held sway straight through to 1913, when the progressive Democrat and Princeton professor Woodrow Wilson decided to come lecture Congress personally. Wilson also followed the example of Theodore Roosevelt by making his speech a muscular agenda rather than just a rundown on what was happening around the government.
Due to ill health, Wilson went back to mailing it in for the last two years he was president. Warren Harding did two SOTU addresses in person before dying in office. Calvin Coolidge gave his first in 1923 in person and allowed it to be broadcast on the radio. Then Coolidge went back to the written report, which Herbert Hoover also favored.
But starting with Franklin Roosevelt, the full value of the SOTU was appreciated and expanded upon. FDR used it to proclaim his “four freedoms,” LBJ to announce his war on poverty and Richard Nixon to say “one year of Watergate is enough.”
In the 1930s, the radio microphone became a fixture, followed by one for TV in 1947. And the presumption took hold that the president was addressing not only Congress but an entire nation — listening and watching on an ever-expanding array of electronic devices.
The SOTU itself has become a kind of electronic device and one of the most powerful a president has. (It is hard to imagine Trump was not looking forward to Jan. 29 more than Pelosi was looking forward to nights in Afghanistan.)
Over the years, there must have been times when Capitol Hill leaders wished they could lift that powerful device deftly from the hands of the president and put it on a shelf. But even those speakers of the House most at loggerheads with a president have felt they had to issue the routine invitation and sit there and take it. To do otherwise would have been unthinkable.
So what will happen next? Some House Republicans got busy Thursday circulating a letter asking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to host Trump in the Senate chamber this year.
Checking the precedents, there have been many presidents who addressed the Senate while in office, but not for a “State of the Union” or any other kind of joint session of the Senate and House together. Those are always in the far larger and more commodious House chamber.
Until now, perhaps?
House Republican leaders have speculated that another venue on the Hill might be found anytime the president of the United States wishes to speak. And surely that’s true. But does it make sense to do this speech at this time in any other place? Or does a change of venue sap too much of the tradition, glory and grandeur?
And as long as we are asking questions, let us return to one posed a moment ago: Does it make sense to gather all these people at once the way we do, largely to project a false sense of unity?
Perhaps the best answer is another question: Would we be better off with no national show of unity at all?