The annual State of the Union address: What exactly is the point?
On the one hand, Nancy Pelosi’s Shutdown Smackdown put President Donald Trump in a corner by threatening to deny all that attention and adulation during a prime-time slot. On the other hand, maybe it’s time to scrap this extravagant, overbaked format altogether?
A new date has finally been set for the address: next Tuesday, February 5. To take stock of the unprecedented tussle between Pelosi and Trump, this week’s episode of the Mother Jones Podcast looks back at the highs and lows of this time-honored presidential tradition and assesses the lasting impact of Trump’s extreme, norm-defying approach to presidential power.
For insight into the process of crafting an address like this, Mother Jones reporter Tim Murphy caught up with James Fallows, staff writer at The Atlantic and former chief speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and asked whether we can salvage the most important annual address of the presidency and turn it back into something both more traditional and more effective.
“If you had to choose norms that could be sacrificed with minimal harm, I think the White House Correspondents Dinner would top that list, and the State of the Union would be close,” Fallows says. “It is more like kabuki or like the North Korean or Chinese state Legislature than I think the founders intended.”
You can listen to the full interview here, or read an edited transcript of it below. (And don’t forget to subscribe.)
Mother Jones: As someone who worked as a presidential speechwriter, you have unique insights into what goes into a State of the Union. What would the days leading up to the speech be like for you?
James Fallows: If we’re talking about normal presidential reigns or regimes, unlike the last couple of years, a State of the Union speech was always the event that the speechwriting crew dreaded more than any other happening in the year. Everybody in the entire government could see this thing coming literally a year in advance. Every little bureau, and every department, and every foreign ministry, and every friend of the president, and every intellectual was writing to you, saying, “Please put in a paragraph about water aid to South Asia,” or “Please put in a paragraph about the new kind of vocational school we need,” or “Please put in X, Y, or Z.” You have this accelerating influx of stuff that you have to cram into the bag.
MJ: This is a 51-week project.
JF: It is. I have the speechwriters’ bias in saying this, but I think anybody who’s ever tried to do this will say the same thing: The less time you have to prepare for most speeches, the better they are. Speeches are “one-draft writing” because they’re meant to be heard, the way you hear it in your head when you’re writing. Some of the most memorable speeches from presidents over the years were the result of long crafting over the weeks or months, but a lot of them were things that people just hammered out over a day or two.
The State of the Union is the opposite of that. When George W. Bush talked about the “axis of evil” with Iran, Iraq, and North Korea back in his early 2002 State of the Union, those three words themselves were the propulsion for a lot of policy over the next year. So it’s a 51-week process. It is a negotiated process, and this is why we so rarely remember these things as works of oratory.
MJ: Trump has quite proudly eroded a lot of norms and traditions in Washington. Some more significant than others. What kind of imprint has he left on the State of the Union?
JF: I was gonna say about the previous, and I think only, State of the Union that Trump has given: I can’t really remember it very well. On the one hand, that doesn’t really mean anything, because these speeches are designed not really to be remembered. The machined quality of them, and the inevitable simplification, means that any sort of memorable phrase usually gets boiled away.
I think in Trump’s case, there’s an additional reason why his set speeches are less memorable. Like him or not as a public figure, he’s strongest as a speaker when he can essentially surf the crowd, when he can hear what people are responding to and cheering about, and he can repeat the lines and he can go off on all sorts of tangents. To have the same power as a “set” speaker, you have to learn how to do it. Ronald Regan was great at that, not because he was an actor, but because he had been an announcer. George W. Bush learned how to do it well. Bill Clinton was never that good at it but, sort of like Donald Trump, he could riff. The president I worked for, Jimmy Carter, was quite good at off the cuff, extemporaneous speech, and resisted learning how to do the “set” speech. Trump is not good at this kind of speaking performance.
MJ: I was trying to remember a line or phrase from one of those previous speeches and I couldn’t. The only thing that really sticks with me from Trump is “American carnage” from his inauguration. Has he said anything in either his first State of the Union or his previous address to Congress that you think will stick with us?
JF: The short answer is no. The one phrase I, too, can remember is “American carnage”. Number one, because it was so out of keeping with what any other president has ever said in an inaugural address. This is usually the time to look forward, to celebrate the continuity of American governance, to talk about renewal, to talk about better angels of our nature. So it was out of character for past presidential inaugural addresses, but it was in character for Trump: It was the rare moment where a set speech for him captured the way he talks on the stump.
If you look at transcripts of what he says on the stump, it makes no sense, because it frays with sentence fragments that go off in different directions. But if you’re there in the moment, it’s like a stand-up comedian’s riff, or it’s like a world wrestling production. I think we can’t neglect that he has that actual skill: a preacher’s skill, or an entertainer’s skill, or a shock jock’s skill.
And I submit that the pool of people who he can draw on to try to produce what we think of as good writing—he probably has a shallower pool of those people to work with than others. So I think that’s why from a set speech, there really is only one phrase we’re gonna remember from Donald Trump, which is “American carnage”.
MJ: Let’s talk about the spectacle itself. How is it changed since you were involved?
JF: I think that if you wanted to look for a silver lining, it may be knocking the State of the Union down a couple of pegs because it had gone from what it had been back at the dawn of time, which was a report from the executive branch to the legislative branch about what was going on in the country, to its own version of a world wrestling spectacle, where it was becoming a celebration of the president and the presidency in an unseemly way.
I remember this starting with Bill Clinton: the grotesquely choreographed standing up and cheering. It’s sort of a jack-in-the-box act. It reminded me of being back in China when the Supreme Leader is speaking. It is more like kabuki or like the North Korean or Chinese state Legislature than I think the founders intended.
MJ: Things have really seemed to fall apart for Trump in the buildup to this speech. There’s a new Democratic Congress, there was the shutdown humiliation, and the steady buildup of the Mueller investigation. He’s in a bit of a funk. How have past presidents addressed these kinds of crisis situations?
JF: Trump is, of course, unique in the ways you’ve named, and five billion others. But it’s not unusual for presidents to show up before Congress when chastened. Part of the craft of the State of the Union usually is to recognize this, and to offer some authentic and real-world assessment. Bill Clinton in ’94. Barack Obama after the 2010 midterms. George W. Bush after the 2006 midterms. All those presidents lost badly, and all of them tried to convey in their opening remarks that they had learned something, that they would work with new Congress. It has been important so far for presidents to do something that I don’t think anyone has ever seen Donald Trump do.
MJ: Never too late to change. At this point a week ago, we were saying that the State of the Union was canceled, or at least postponed to a date to be determined. If this year’s State of the Union never happens, will we miss it?
JF: I think that we will not miss the spectacle of it because it is, and will be, painful for all involved. It’s difficult to imagine how Trump would comport himself in circumstances where Nancy Pelosi would be sitting behind him the whole time. To have Nancy Pelosi behind him—I could imagine that being delicious for her, but less comfortable for him. I personally will not miss it, and I think in the current swirl of events, we’re probably better off.
MJ: You’ve been recounting the various ways in which the speech has grown into something bigger, almost like the Super Bowl of speeches. Is there any way to salvage the State of the Union and turn it back into something more traditional and effective?
JF: Everybody hopes that, and it never is that. I think that by just by sheer metric tonnage measures, they’ve been getting longer and longer and longer over the years. I have many hopes for America, but my hopes do not include short and rhetorically elevated States of the Union.
MJ: He’s got rid of, at this point, most press briefings; he skipped the White House Correspondents Dinners; there have been so many shifts. Are we willing to give up one more norm?
JF: If you had to choose norms that could be sacrificed with minimal harm, I think the White House Correspondents Dinner would top that list, and the State of the Union would be close. The State of the Union speeches, and the press briefings, in normal circumstances, I think these are norms that will return. Whoever is next in this office will do these things again, because they’re part of normal governance.
MJ: Are you willing to make any predictions for a speech? Has Trump met his match in Pelosi?
JF: In the springtime of 2015, I had a very brief item on The Atlantic site saying, “This man, Donald Trump, will never be president.” That was the last prediction I have made involving him. Only time will tell, as they say in the hack speechwriting trade, but it looks like this may be the turning point we’ll look back on: the cave on the shutdown.