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Wednesday, January 21, 2004

$tate of the Union: Christmas in January

Most people don't stop to think about the real meaning of words or phrases, and that's a real shame. Take "State of the Union", f'rinstance...

For 112 years the State of the Union speech was not televised, or broadcast over radio, or even delivered live by the President of the United States at all. It was merely delivered in printed form to both houses of Congress and then sent to newspapers and magazines throughout the country, a practice started by Thomas Jefferson. It wasn't until Woodrow Wilson that, as George Washington did, the President again appeared before a joint session of Congress. The State of the Union address as we know it isn't even officially legislated: Article II Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution only requires that the President give Congress information about the state of the union "from time to time", as he (or she) deems is necessary. That could mean one time a year, or several times. A president could conceivably go a year or two without delivering a statement on the state of the union, if times were boring enough.

When Article II was originally drafted, America was indeed a union of individual states, united under common ideals in a shared sense of identity and destiny. That said states were united wasn't taken to mean that the federal government was intended as the be-all/end-all of American identity, however: government at the federal level was a product of consent by the individual states, after already being given such consent by the citizens of the United States. After it was understood from whom this form of government derived, the responsibility was given to the President to summarise, as best he understood it, what the condition and sense of the Union was. Hence, the "state of the union" literally was just that: the state of how the union itself was faring.

The State of the Union speech that I listened to last night was the furthest thing from the original intent that it could have possibly been. Forget "union of states", that's a concept largely in name only today. And it would be too easy to say that President Bush has completely forgotten that America is defined by the character of her people and not the strength of her government... except that darn nearly every other president for the past 70 years has believed the same thing, so why should this one be any different?

I started calling the State of the Union address "Christmas in January" some years ago during Clinton's maladministration, and Uncle George promised everyone an even bigger bag of goodies than his predecessor. Where in the world do we begin: more money to public schools (including the "No Child Left Behind" boondoggle that my wife, the public schoolteacher, laughs at) when the money is being wasted like never before, doubling the budget for National Endowment for Democracy whatever the heck that is, a new program called "Jobs for the 21st Century", propping up Social Security instead of privatizing it (or better yet scrapping the damned thing), socialized medicine and centralizing medical records via computer... sheesh, just put Hillary up there and get it over with already.

At one point Bush praised the traditional institutions of family and religions institutions. Not three minutes later, he began proposing funding federal programs to promote sexual abstinence. Ummmm, sexual abstinence until marriage is a noble and honorable thing. I like to believe that it's a realistic goal for every young person. Holding off until after you meet that one special person at the altar doesn't just build a family, it builds personal character. Sexual abstinence does not now, or ever has, needed a government program to work. Let families and churches handle that, Mr. President, not a federal agency. The pros not only enjoy a bigger success rate than the government, but letting them handle this also has added benefit of zero cost to the taxpayer.

Speaking of religious institutions, Bush proposed legislating protections for them. The last time a government tried "protecting" a faith, Christianity was very nearly destroyed Christianity in Europe. Our churches haven't needed government's "help" before, and they shouldn't desire it now.

After proposing spending TWENTY THREE MILLION to stop drug abuse, Bush called on pro sports owners and players to curb steroid abuse. Using anabolic steroids to enhance physical performance is far less a problem now than it was 20 years ago: did President Reagan ever mention it during any of his State of the Union addresses?

I didn't actually watch the SOTU address: while our tv set was tuned to the local Fox station, my back was to the set. Instead I listened to it, letting me block out the visuals and focus on the actual message (while doing a running commentary about it with a friend via AOL Instant Messenger). Our shared conclusion: this year's speech was bereft of any substance or principle. Bush chose to focus his message, as his immediate predecessor did, on what big government is doing now and what it will be doing tomorrow on today's dime.