With its format of proposals and accomplishments, President’s Bush speech follows a long and grand tradition. At the first address in 1790, George Washington praised the recent accession of South Carolina to the Union, discussed conflicts with Native American tribes and argued for uniformity in currency, weights and measures. One month before signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln’s address in 1862 included a brief argument for the freedom of slaves. The State of the Union has likewise been the platform for such ideas as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Second New Deal, from which emerged the Social Security system, and Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty.
Even so, State of the Union addresses are not generally known for their brevity or thematic focus. Harry Truman’s first address was 16,000 words. (Luckily, it was not read aloud.) At 20,000 words, Teddy Roosevelt’s address in 1901 was longer still. He had a clerk read it; it took two-and-a-half hours. In the current era of focus groups, special interests and large government bureaucracy, the speech always runs the risk of becoming what the historian Richard Norton Smith has called a sort of themeless pudding, filled with tag lines and pet projects of the many different departments and agencies seeking notice. Even so, some State of the Union speeches have been notable for phrases that stuck. A year before entering World War II, F.D.R. imagined a world founded upon four essential freedomsfreedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. In 2002 President Bush decried the Axis of Evil.
It is traditional to assert at some point in the address that the country is flourishing. After some introductory remarks, President Bush began, The state of our union is confident and strong. However, in his first State of the Union, in 1975, Gerald Ford took the bold step of pronouncing the contrary. The state of the Union is not good, he declared, and enumerated the various problems facing the nation. He went on to say that the moment has come to move in a new direction. We can do this by fashioning a new partnership between the Congress on the one hand, the White House on the other, and the people we both represent. The problems of the nation became in his eyes an opportunity to reach out.
Today, one wishes for the candidness of President Ford’s approach. It is hard to know whether the union has ever felt more fractured since the Civil War, certainly not since Vietnam. Yet at some point the constant repetition of criticism and division becomes itself divisive. It may be that the president’s second term will see a continuation of the partisan, mean-spirited politics by Democrats and Republicans that were characteristic of the campaigns. One certainly wishes that the president’s sense of a mandate might include a desire both to listen to the other 48 percent of the country and to attempt to draw them in. One also wishes that the Democrats’ platform were more substantive than The Bush administration is terrible. Our leaders and the media need to see the serious harm this approach is causing us as a people.
Still, none of this is to say that we, the people of this nation, must follow suit. We may be divided in our opinions, but we are most certainly bound together in our longings. Republican or Democrat, black or white or red or brown or yellow, male or female, gay or straight, we all long for a world in which our children and all children can thrive. We all hope for a world in which people can speak the name of God, however they might imagine it, without fear of reprisal. We all yearn for a world in which enemies are reconciled and violence is no more.
The kingdom of justice and peace that we seek does not come easily. And rarely does it take the form we might expect. It is instructive to remember that Jesus built his community not among the righteous, who followed the Law observantly, but among sinners and the Law’s outcasts. Likewise the United States was begun in part by exiles, and continues even today to be viewed around the world as a haven for the poor and oppressed. Our longings may lead to differences of view, but they are themselves a sign of our common thirst and shared journey. They call us all to charity, humility and hope. They call us to work together constructively so that our union is strengthened as we seek justice and peace.