Thursday, January 30, 2003

More on the Speech

Some friends have written to IA, indicating dissatisfaction with the "laundry list" that they think comprised the first half of Bush's speech. They might find Peggy Noonan's assessment today in the WSJ interesting. Noonan worried about a laundry list also, but came away from the speech impressed with the unity of its themes, and argues the the early slowness built into "stateliness."

Laundry lists aside, our friends have a point. There are important arguments that suggest that the State of the Union address as it exists today results from the Progressivism of the early part of last century, particularly its dissatisfaction with separation of powers and indirect government. Progressivism wanted more direct democracy and a president who was closer to the people than the founders wanted him to be. The "Rhetorical Presidency," therefore, results from progressivism; it is not primarily the result of new technologies such as television but of ideas about government which rejected the republicanism of the founders. Among progressivism's victims is the party system which, though having no Constitutional status, used to be responsible for nominating candidates, thereby serving republicanism by maintaining distance between candidates and the people.

Truth be told, not just liberals but also conservatives, including Noonan (herself a former speechwriter), have forgotten the arguments of the founders regarding the dangers of demagoguery and importance of distance between citizens and statesmen. When she says that Bush's speech was the "oratory of the post-soundbite era," she seems to be engaging in wishful thinking. No matter how good Bush's speech was and no matter how decent a man he is, demagoguery is as possible now as ever.

Still, it does not appear that the State of the Union address will disappear anytime soon. Whoever wants to study progressivism and its relation to the rise of the "rhetorical presidency" should read Jeffrey Tulis's The Rhetorical Presidency and James Ceaser's Presidential Selection. Tulis is willing to condone a bit more rhetoric than Ceaser, if I am not mistaken.


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