Where have you gone, Rutherford B. Hayes?

The President gets to play rock star once a year with the Vice-President and the Speaker of the House as his rhythm section

by Colby Cosh

Where have you gone, Rutherford B. Hayes

(AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

I have the same reaction to every State of the Union address. It’s a vicarious Catonian revulsion, the grief and horror of the old Roman. (I’m a monarchist, but I’m a monarchist for us.) As everyone writing on the occasion of a SOTU observes, the president’s traditional harangue to the houses of Congress is said to be licensed by Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution:

[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.

Even hard-bitten originalists tend to read this passage for sonority rather than meaning. All it says is that the President must furnish data to Congress and suggest legislative activity. It doesn’t say anything about doing so annually, though that became the habit almost immediately. It doesn’t say anything about giving information and advice in the form of a speech, let alone presenting oneself to Congress. Early presidents did so, but Thomas Jefferson pulled a face and refused to play ball. He fretted that a knockoff of Westminsterian Throne Speeches would “familiarize the public with monarchical ideas”, and he didn’t want representatives of the other branches of government to be intimidated by the person of the chief magistrate.

The presidents of the 19th century believed that this was an excellent and sensible precedent, and sent their “annual messages” to the legislature in writing. At least one (Hayes) wondered whether even a written dispatch was appropriate to the republican spirit and to the nature of his office. To a man, they would have been horrified at the spectacle of a President pugnaciously dressing down a Supreme Court, as Obama did last night in his animadversion upon the Citizens United ruling.

Even dear old Justice Ginsburg seemed nonplussed and disapproving, though no doubt she seems much the same way when she’s watering plants or eating a sandwich. I was hoping for Chief Justice Roberts to rise to his feet and lead the black-robed group right out of the building. Better still, perhaps, if they’d just dispersed in all directions like a murder of crows startled by a gunshot.

The idea of the “State of the Union address” was revived by the tyrannical, warmongering racist Woodrow Wilson, that infallible guide to the inadvisable. Wilson could have cited the model of the pre-Jeffersonian presidents, but as Jeffrey Tulis points out in a tart footnote in his book The Rhetorical Presidency, he didn’t restore the SOTU institution to its original form: the proto-SOTUs of Washington and Adams were followed by replies from both Houses and further counter-retorts from the chief executive. In other words, the SOTU as implemented by the revolutionary generation was a republican dialogue, not a kingly incantation.

Nowadays, the President gets to play rock star once a year with the Vice-President and the Speaker of the House as his rhythm section. (Though any bar-band bass player who upstaged his frontman with deranged mugging as often as Nancy Pelosi does would quickly find himself in a back-alley dumpster with a Rickenbacker colonoscopy.) But there is certainly one advantage in having him confront the legislature and the judiciary in person: it exposes him to laughter. Obama, who is unbelievably relaxed and cool on the highest occasions of state, deliberately invited some of it. But the very audible chuckling which greeted his mention of “the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change” was surely neither anticipated nor welcome.

I like Barack Obama, considering him strictly as a performer. Indeed, I already have an embarrassing printed history of vulnerability to his speaking style, despite my allergy to his politics.  I pretty much fell for the Jeremiah Wright damage-control speech; I fell for the Cairo speech on Islam. When I read that Obama’s first SOTU was expected to come in at 70 minutes, I cringed, thinking of the tangle-tongued G.W. Bush and the endless pandering shout-outs of Bill Clinton. In the event, Obama easily broke 80 minutes, but I was never conscious of making an effort to pay attention until the very last bit, when he wandered from policy and worked extra-hard to drive home the Clintonian message that he feels everybody’s pain.

His obnoxious, promiscuous pan-sympathizing reminded me of a quote his advisor Valerie Jarrett gave to ABC News a few days ago while “previewing” the speech:

He’ll be able to set forth his priorities, and they will be focusing on the middle class. Our middle class is struggling out there. They’re frustrated, they’re angry, they’re working hard to try to make ends meet. They’re having to make terrible choices between paying their rent and putting food on the table and paying for their health care and sending their kids to college. These are the same principles that the president advocated in the course of the campaign.

There aren’t any “principles” in that quote at all, just descriptions of suffering. Indeed, a Haitian asked to consider the “terrible choices” faced by Americans would probably say it wasn’t really suffering at all—just childish resentment at the mere existence of economic scarcity. (I understand that there’s a recession on, but what prior generation of Americans didn’t have to struggle to realize its ambitions? When have the non-rich not faced difficult choices and opportunity costs?) Apparently the word “principle” may now be regarded, not as a term denoting permanent maxims of action, but as a fine-sounding synonym for “feelings”.

Well, Barack Obama couldn’t literally feel one percent of the combined emotional force of American insecurities and dreads, or he’d keel over dead. What he really hopes to do, when he starts spinning anecdotes about the letters he’s received and the people he’s talked to, is to convince us that he has somehow integrated those feelings intellectually. Yet I wonder if he has, when I hear him say that Americans are more alike in their fears than in their practical circumstances. Though they “have different backgrounds, different stories, different beliefs,” he said, “the anxieties they face are the same.”

The president has a low-BS rhetorical style, but this is high-octane BS, as you can tell by applying the most quick-’n'-easy litmus test for political BS I know of: ask yourself “What if he had said the exact opposite?” Nearly all Americans regard themselves as being part of a shared historical narrative, on whose chief points they mostly agree. They are very alike in their core political beliefs, stated and unstated. When compared to most of the human race and all of the human past, they are alike in being inconceivably well-off. Where they differ is precisely in their anxieties.

Surely, after all, it’s our anxieties, to at least some degree, that make us vote for different political candidates. We’re all opposed to crime and terrorism and injustice and prejudice and pollution; we may disagree on the specific solutions, but we also disagree on which of these things we need to worry about RIGHT NOW. The debate over health insurance reform—with one side conjuring images of an army of outcast fellow-citizens enfeebled by pestilence, and the other yelping about death panels and creeping socialism—could not demonstrate this more clearly. Until Obama can emerge from solipsism and really put himself inside the minds of people who haven’t yet voted for him, he may remain, at best, half a leader.

Where have you gone, Rutherford B. Hayes?

  1. Your little rant was humdrum, lacking in your usual level of virtuoso vindictiveness. You get a B minus.

    But what I really want to know is what the hell is a Rickenbacker colonoscopy? If this strikes you as appalling ignorance, just get over it and explain.

    • If I may be so bold, I think he meant that if Pelosi was the bass player and Obama the front man, she woudl run the risk of having her Rickenbacker bass deposited rectally.

    • And be quick with his drink order, Cosh! What, do you think he's got all day?

    • From reading, I would say he means the bass player would have his bass shoved up his arse… pretty simple eh?

    • Rickenbacker bass guitar…sticking it the old BE-hind.

  2. Well, I for one, struggled past the colonoscopy to be humored by your able description of presidential BS. Low rhetorical vs. high-octane, no less. I was wondering when you might consider emerging from your own profound pulpit of BS solipsism to speak frankly.
    Health care is fine as is?
    The economy, debt, taxes and wars are just peachy keen, OK by you?
    Banks have just been exercising their democratic, capitalistic rights to screw the nation?

    Dear old Colby Cosh and his profound punditry, can't call a spade a spade and make a point without evoking the history of SOTU's (WTF?). So, mon ami, you trashed and panned your entire article in the first sentence – "I have the same reaction to every State of the Union address … revulsion". So, if this is your simple and clear opinion of ALL SOTU's, why would anyone want to believe your verbal diarrhea critiquing Obama's latest effort? Maybe he is half a leader … but you sir, are nowhere near half a journalist on this diatribe.

    BTW, the "Reality-distortion field fail" article was excellent and I agree completely, but Jobs is the one with all the money and the "toys" that nobody can seem to resist, so calling this one, while the dice are still rolling is not a good bet, in my view.

    • The line that got me was "I pretty much fell for the Jeremiah Wright damage-control speech"

      "Fell" for it? As in "swooned romantically" or "allowed myself to be deceived"? Or is there another interpretation I've failed to consider?

      Could you unpack that statement a bit?

      • Couldn't it be both? I thought it was terribly impressive but the conventional wisdom went the other way in the end.

        • The wright speech went the other way? Really, I too was impressed with that speech and it got him through. I dont think the speech has caused him issue. The Cairo speech, that has caused him problems in the longer run, as it is seen as part of the World Wide Apology and Bow tour. It was a fine speech, but didnt address anything domestically and hasnt got him anything tangible internationally, at least not anything that shows up at home.

        • Absolutely it can be both. I guess I just wonder where you might have seen any sort of deception or other negativity.

          The way I saw it, his pastor gave some speeches with a strong Black nationalist tone. Those speeches got wall-to-wall coverage for the remainder of the election period. And Obama's response was to address the issue with a strikingly mature speech on race.

          Considering the preschool-level of political discourse that's become the norm, Obama's handling of this incident really earned my respect.

          Incidentally, the "conventional wisdom" in US politics is very often the source of the preschool-level discourse.

  3. I was surprised that Ms. Pelosi's face isn't actually frozen in an expression of disgust. She has expanded her repertoire to include adulation. I never had the impression she was a big fan of Obama before.

    My favourite part was watching Biden trying to decide if it was appropriate to applaud. That and the colour-coded outfits.

  4. Obama is rocking the Republican world!!

  5. "I like Barack Obama, considering him strictly as a performer. Indeed, I already have an embarrassing printed history of vulnerability to his speaking style, despite my allergy to his politics."

    I started out this way but was appalled by his 'throw his grandmother under the bus speech' (aka Jeremiah Wright damage-control speech). I was living in England in 2004 and stayed up till wee hours of morning watching Obama's Democratic Convention speech and I am a sucker for declaration of independence/founding father/freedom ideas so I was impressed with his "It was a creed written into the founding documents" but I was absolutely appalled when he compared his nan to to Wright. Now I am not so impressed with his speaking ability.

    "In trying to defend everything he defended nothing." Frederick Great

    Obama and his brain trust do not seem to realize there is difference between campaigning and governing yet. Obama is for everything, even when ideas are contradictory, and he refuses to take a position.

    He's not going to walk away from health care reform, or leave a mountain of debt, but that's exactly what he's doing. Obama can change 'Don't ask, don't tell' today, by executive order, if he so desired. And he talked little about foreign policy – Iran in particular – when Commander In Chief is one of his main duties as Pres. The list is endless when it comes Obama – it's all about 'ideas' with Obama but don't expect him to make actual choices or decisions.

    • If you look at his speech to the convention you realize he dined out on that speech for 4 years. He has a compelling personal story, it is very American, log cabin type stuff…i.e. outsider makes it inside, except this time he was the ultimate outsider, mixed race, etc. You will notice that he kept trying that angle, weaving in references to himself as he went international. But everyone has heard the story, and they dont need to hear it again. Obama has been unable to make something else compelling, maybe because it isnt to him. What he finds interesting and compelling just isnt insteresting and compelling to others, therefore his apparent gifts of oratory fail due to lack of content, not due to inability to deliver style.

  6. oh, no vince….obama is an outsider inside his skin….in his mind…..his politics are statists, I don't believe he is a socilaist because I was one for 20 odd yrs and can smell one…he's worse, if he was sartre or camus he'd be sartres angry side, his soviet side…no candidate ever had a despicable past with some real scroungy mutts as pals and then …somehow….become prez…..it amazes me…….
    Look, I want Nixons hc plan……Im not republican or democrat, Im Indian, feather not dot…..I want the two wars to end, not that I dislike war for dislikings sake….we should be in Saudi Arabia and Darfur….and the outsourcing of jobs and the corporate snuggle he does off camera….then to attack a scotus like that showed no decorum, no comity, co class. Scum. The next prez should be a Canuck Mohawk.

  7. how? you mean his NOT handling of the issue, by speaking more b.s he swirled smoke and all five tongues came snapping at once towards ye???He's very simple to figure out, he's what we call ….a crook.

    • A crook that lies with convction and passion…pathological lying, as I call it. All of the great deceivers have that talent. I thought Clinton was the best, but this guy…whew!

  8. His story was that of the outsider coming in, as was Bill Clintons, as was Richard Nixons, Carters….whether it is true or not is less important, and quite frankly one of opinion. But the narrative that Lincoln's story, backwoods lawyer, raised in a cabin, no advantage, no patrician lineage has an everlasting appeal. Palin is on the same road, whether she'll decide to follow that path or become a celebrity is another matter (that isnt an endorsement by the way).

    So the great orator myth is forged on this single story that he repeated again and again. The content is well known. Lincoln, well Lincoln passionately believed in the Union and abolishing slavery. While I havent studied it I would say he probably didnt speak eloquently on more mundane issues of the day. Hillary may have got it right, once again not an endorsement, that while great at speechmaking (left unsaid was on a narrow range of topics) Obama lacked a broader perspective and depth of experience. Hey, he's Pres now, we can only hope he learns really quickly.

  9. the proto-SOTUs of Washington and Adams were followed by replies from both Houses

    Gee. Almost sounds like a… Speech from the Throne.

  10. As a barometer , two recent state elections indicate that Obama is on a slippery slope…The November legislative elections ;portend to pull the rug out from under him….His hollow slogans duped the American public into electing him….But the people
    are increasingly in a mood to run him out on a rail… .If the USA had a modern parliamentary system like Canada., he would already be gone ..

  11. No he would have had the equivalent of a mjority government and would not be worried about mid term elections. It would have been Brian Mulroney 1984

  12. "Thomas Jefferson pulled a face and refused to play ball. He fretted that a knockoff of Westminsterian Throne Speeches would “familiarize the public with monarchical ideas”, and he didn't want representatives of the other branches of government to be intimidated by the person of the chief magistrate."

    Not only that, Jefferson was terrified of speaking in public, and avoided speech-making whenever he could. He gave only two speeches during his entire Presidency, his first and second inaugural addresses.

  13. Good piece overall.

    The idea behind "death panels" is exactly the "existence of economic scarcity." I'd scarcely consider voicing such a genuine concern "yelping."

  14. I love this column, and the Hayes example. Not to mention you really stuck it to Wilson, who does not deserve to be held in the high esteem he currently enjoys. He was actually a lot like Obama in his brittle, go-it-alone, my-way-or-the-highway approach. Witness his going to pitch for the League of Nations in person but not bringing any Republicans along, then being shocked they didn't join hands with him on it. (Thank you, Alice Lee Roosevelt for knocking it down.)

    But must every column include something positive about Obama? It's the only nit I'd pick. It doesn't even buy you any good will if you look at the comments — which rather proves your point about Obama and his minions. Nothing will be tolerated except raucous applause. Even silence is not allowed when he expects a line to garner applause, as he admonished the GOP for when he falsely claimed he'd given a "tax cut" for college. (In fact, it was a tax credit; a one-time, limited-time-only perk.) Perhaps next time, he should put up an Applause sign.

    I hope Rush Limbaugh uses this column today.

  15. Colby: Dumpster or dumpster?

    • It doesn't have to be a Dumpster™-brand dumpster.

  16. The line about the Supreme Court dispersing in all directions like a murder of crows startled by a gunshot was one of the funniest lines I've read recently… the image of them all just bolting in different directions, their black robes billowing, is fantastic. I even imagine the skinnier and guanter of the Justices taking flight like a crow! Funny stuff.

    • I agree. I lol'd, as they say on the Internets.

  17. "I'm a monarchist, but I'm a monarchist for us.) "

    David Hume, the greatest skeptic of them all, once remarked that after a gathering of skeptics met to proclaim the veracity of skepticism as a philosophy, all of the members of the gathering nonetheless left by the door rather than the window.

    - not my words – you are being foolish Mr. Cosh

  18. he is a self serving jack ass…….

  19. Very much enjoyed each and every line of your writing.Thanks for the info.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *