Well, it's that time of year again - the State of the Union! Here are my traditional thoughts on the occasion - after which we'll deal with the peculiar circumstances of tonight's festivities:
Strange how the monarchical urge persists even in a republic two-and-a-third centuries old. Many commentators have pointed out that the modern State of the Union is in fairly obvious mimicry of the Speech from the Throne that precedes a new legislative session in British Commonwealth countries and continental monarchies, but this is to miss the key difference. When the Queen or her viceroy reads a Throne Speech in Westminster, Ottawa, or Canberra, it's usually the work of a government with a Parliamentary majority: In other words, the stuff she's announcing is actually going to happen. That's why, lest any enthusiasm for this or that legislative proposal be detected, the apolitical monarch overcompensates by reading everything in as flat and unexpressive a monotone as possible. Underneath the ancient rituals â€” the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod getting the door of the House of Commons slammed in his face three times â€” it's actually a very workmanlike affair.
The State of the Union is the opposite. The president gives a performance, extremely animatedly, head swiveling from left-side prompter to right-side prompter, continually urging action now: "Let's start right away. We can get this done. . . . We can fix this. . . . Now is the time to do it. Now is the time to get it done." And at the end of the speech, nothing gets done, and nothing gets fixed, and, after a few days' shadowboxing between admirers and detractors willing to pretend it's some sort of serious legislative agenda, every single word of it is forgotten until the next one.
In that sense, like BeyoncĂ© lip-synching the National Anthem at the inauguration, the State of the Union embodies the decay of America's political institutions into a simulacrum of responsible government rather than the real thing, and a simulacrum ever more divorced from the real issues facing the country.
If all that sounds familiar, it's because I wrote it two years ago, and recycled it this time last year. I could file my SOTU column a month early and go to the Bahamas, as all self-respecting commentators should do.
But this year things are even worse. The monarchical fripperies are no longer mere appurtenances but embody the cold, corrupt reality of Obama's governing philosophy. If you believe, as Republican House members purport to, that the President does not have the legal authority to perform his one-man rewrite of America's immigration laws, why offer him the people's legislature as a dais for his throne? His amnesty-by-memo is not a small thing: ultimately it strikes at the integrity of American citizenship, and thus at the very heart of the nation. Do you remember, all the way back in November, there was briefly some talk of denying King Barack his photo-op? As I wrote a couple of weeks after the election:
It has been suggested that Boehner should tell America's new ConLawProf-in-Chief to go give his State of the Union somewhere else. It would be a symbolic gesture, but symbols are important. In a contemporary North American context, it is not unknown for parliament to assert itself against the head of state: the chippy separatists of Quebec's "National Assembly", as part of their make-believe nation-building, have denied the Queen's viceroy the customary right to give the Speech from the Throne (the Westminster equivalent to the State of the Union) for four decades now. Down the road in Ottawa, in a particularly petulant outburst, Jean ChrĂ©tien, the Canadian Prime Minister, denied the Queen herself the opportunity to give the 2002 Speech from the Throne in the federal parliament for no other reason than that he felt she hadn't given him a good enough seat at her mother's funeral earlier that year. In actual monarchies, the subjects flip the finger at the sovereign all the time. Yet in a supposed republic of citizen-legislators for the people's house to assert its authority to the head of state by telling him to take a hike on the State of the Union would be an act of lĂ¨se-majestĂ© too appalling even to consider.
But it would be too much to expect American Republicans to have the cojones of Canadian Liberals or Quebec separatists, wouldn't it? Had they stood firm, no doubt a future Democrat House might have exacted payback from a future Republican president, and the whole ghastly ritual would have collapsed, thank God. Instead, thanks to John Boehner, the President will get to bury his lawlessness in an orgy of the usual gladhanding and schmoozing.
So what can we expect? In Ottawa or London, a throne speech's author toils in anonymity, but here he gets more publicity than the Best Screenplay Oscar. Even by the usual standards, The New York Times' Michael S Schmidt is drooling more sycophantically than most self-respecting men could stomach:
WASHINGTON â€” One night last week Cody Keenan, the chief White House speechwriter President Obama has christened "Hemingway," knew he needed help.
Mr. Keenan had spent 15 days holed up in a hotel room in Honolulu as the president vacationed nearby, and seven more in a windowless office in the basement of the West Wing trying to turn a blank computer screen into a 6,000-word State of the Union first draft. The lonesome process had finally gotten to him.
So the burly 34-year-old former high school quarterback left his White House office and trudged in the freezing rain to the nearby apartment of one of his closest friends in the administration, Benjamin J. Rhodes.
It was after midnight, but Mr. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser and the writer of many of the president's foreign policy speeches, was up reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" to his 4-week-old daughter. The two men poured two single-malt Scotch whiskies and, with the baby resting quietly, began triage on Mr. Keenan's prose.
Is that last paragraph a brilliant parody of media fawning over every Barack courtier's intellectual self-puffery no matter how preposterous? I wish. As noted last week, satire is dead. So the geniuses of the Obama Administration read To Kill A Mockingbird to their four-week-old daughters but send James Taylor to sing "You've Got A Friend" to G7 sovereign nations.