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In Praise of Trump! No, Really.

Killing the State of the Union speech is exactly the kind of norm-busting that we could use more of.
January 16, 2019
In Praise of Trump! No, Really.
Donald J. Trump holds a glass of water before he delivers the State of the Union address. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Let it never be said that Donald Trump hasn’t done some good as president. And not just Neil Gorsuch and moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

The big one is his decision to forgo the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which was an epic triumph for the forces of good in Washington. It rebuked the more self-congratulatory parts of the press, cut down the clubby towel-snapping, and returned both the media and the presidency to their proper stations, if only for a night. We can only hope that the next president continues this tradition.

And on Wednesday, President Trump has the opportunity to blow up another meaningless, self-important Washington tradition: the State of the Union Address.

No one likes the State of the Union. The media hates covering it. The speechwriters hate writing it: They have to wrangle dozens of different departmental stakeholders all vying for attention while also managing a principal who never hears the word “no.” The sacrificial lamb tapped to deliver the opposition response hates it, because no one ever comes out of the rebuttal looking good. And voters don’t care about the speech, either. It’s an incoherent laundry list of pablum and no matter what is happening—fear, famine, war, recession—somehow the state of our union is always “strong.”

So now that Nancy Pelosi has asked Trump to postpone this year’s SOTU, he could do America a real service by declining to give an address at all. Instead, he could send a written version to Congress—which is how the SOTU was delivered by all presidents from Thomas Jefferson through William Taft. And then in 1913 Woodrow Wilson—a self-aggrandizing blow-hard if there ever was one—decided he wanted to give the speech in person. Like Washington had done.

Returning the SOTU to its proper place of (minimal) importance would be a small achievement. But a real one. It’s the kind of disruption Trump’s biggest cheerleaders once promised.

If America has to deal with all of Trump’s pernicious norm-destroying, we might as well break one of the norms that deserves to die, too.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.