On January 8, 1790, President George Washington rolled up to Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York City to deliver the first-ever address to a joint session of the United States Congress. Lawmakers were convening in Manhattan because Washington, DC, wasn't even in the works yet. The speech was at turns optimistic and businesslike ("Uniformity in the currency, weights, and measures of the United States is an object of great importance, and will, I am persuaded, be duly attended to"), but most of all it was mercifully short: According to CNN, at around 1,000 words, is thought to have been delivered in just ten minutes.
Washington was right about the weights and measures thing, and he was right to keep the speech short. As Donald Trump prepares to address a joint session of Congress and the nation at large Tuesday night, we should remember that at best, these addresses announce a couple new pieces of policy that might or might not become reality and include a couple inspiring lines buried in a metric ton of rote Americana. With very few exceptions, the State of the Union tends to be, to quote Politico's Jeff Greenfield, "an annual exercise in overhyped, underwhelming significance." Even the memorable lines from past addresses, like George W. Bush's "axis of evil" or FDR's "four freedoms," are often surrounded by long stretches of blather. And though DC is currently embroiled in all kinds of scandals and outrages related to the Russia investigation, Trump likely won't address any of that in any substantive way.
In other words, you shouldn't feel too bad about doing something else tonight.
Like the US itself, the State of the Union speech (as it would become known after Washington's time) has sprawled and bloated beyond recognition since the era of the Founding Fathers. These days, the addresses typically take an hour or more, include frequent and overlong applause breaks, and center as much as anything else on lots of close-ups of the president's special guests. (This year, Trump has invited a blind double-amputee Marine and the parents of girls killed by MS-13 gang members, among others.) Such addresses are mandated in the Constitution, and over the years they've acquired traditions the way boats acquire barnacles: the applauding, the guests, the responses from the opposition party that are usually ignored.
Mostly, the State of the Union is an annual exercise in political theater. Already, the discourse around Trump's speech is centering on whether he'll be "presidential" and whether that will make a difference in the arc of his administration. But in this context, being presidential means, mostly, being dull as dishwater, and Trump will likely live up to that challenge.
For all of the anger and panic Trump tends to induce in his opposition, in speeches where's he's reading from a teleprompter—rather than playing to a crowd of fans—he tends to come off as stiff while constantly squinting, a raunchy improv comic forced to give a bar mitzvah toast for his least-favorite nephew. This was on display during last month's speech sketching out his "America First" national security strategy, where he sounded flat even when bragging about his election win.
Supposedly, Trump will be on his best behavior Tuesday night. The White House has been teasing a speech full of unifying themes, with an unnamed senior administration official telling the Washington Post it will be “a speech that resonates with our American values and unites us with patriotism.” That means that he'll talk about rebuilding America, the hardworking men and women making the country great again, his tax cuts, the defeats the military has inflicted on ISIS, and the stock market—he will probably talk a lot about the stock market. He's also expected to talk about immigration, though how exactly that will square with the whole unification thing is far from clear.
This State of the Union, like past speeches, will likely be defined not so much by the words the president says but the pageantry of the responses to it. Already, many Democrats have announced they won't be going at all, or else will be going in black as a gesture to #MeToo. The ones who do come likely won't clap all that much. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg won't be going either, though that's hardly unusual for a justice on a court that's supposed to be above day-to-day politics. Pro-Trump pundits will declare victory while liberals will furiously tweet fact-checks and denounce the president. The speech will be graded, annotated, debated, and mostly forgotten in the subsequent 48 hours—or by the next time Trump tweets something strange.
Let's just hope it's short.
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