Bread and Circuses, a Mythical State of the Union

I watched the opening bars of the State of the Union Message on Tuesday night, but I couldn't bear to watch the whole thing. Once I saw the guy from Duck Dynasty up there in the gallery, I lost heart. When's the last time you heard a good State of the Union Message? They tend to be endless lists of small policy initiatives, coupled with patently erroneous claims that the state of the nation is better than everyone knows it to be. At one point the President said we have cut the deficit by half—did anyone really believe that? At another point he said we've had truly impressive national job growth. While urging Congress to extend unemployment benefits (again) to 1.3 million good Americans who cannot find jobs.

I hope I live long enough to hear a President who just levels with us. If I were Obama I'd admit that the rollout of the Affordable Care Act was pathetic. I'd admit that we did not protect our diplomats in Benghazi well enough, and that the administration's immediate public relations response to the attack was a shameful act of deliberate deception. I'd admit that the deficit is out of control. Candor—a fundamental honesty about America's real situation—would, I believe, build bipartisan respect and perhaps even support. We know from the latest Wall Street Review poll that 63% of Americans think the country is heading in the wrong direction. That's worth noting if you really want to talk about the "State of the Union." Not great.

It seems to me the Thomas Jefferson had it right. He chose not to go up in person to Congress to deliver his Annual Messages. He broke with the habit of his two predecessors, George Washington and John Adams, whose annual appearances before Congress Jefferson saw both as a waste of time and quasi-monarchical. Jefferson didn't want America to be about pageantry. He wanted it to be about limited government, "a few plain duties performed by a few honest men." To fulfill his constitutional role, Jefferson wrote (no ghostwriters) an Annual Message and sent it by courier up to the Capitol.

It wasn't until Woodrow Wilson that Presidents returned to Congress for these annual processionals, in which all three branches of our national government face each other in the same chamber—and the black-robed Supreme Court, apparently, just sits there solemnly in the front row, unmoved by the political circus. It amazes me that Theodore Roosevelt wasn't the one to break Jefferson's precedent of silence. It must have nearly killed him when his dreaded rival Wilson read his Annual Message out loud in person before Congress on December 2, 1913. Surely out of one side of TR's mouth came, "The self-serving scoundrel!" and out of the other, "Why didn't I think of that, Edith?"

What we really need is a constitutional revolution. Presidents have recently been ruling more and more by executive order. That's not even slightly the spirit of the Constitution written in 1787. It's the legislative branch that is supposed to pass laws and set policy, the executive to enforce them. If the President can raise the minimum wage by presidential fiat, then we are no longer a republic in any meaningful sense of the term. This President is threatening to use executive orders to work around the Republicans in Congress, but the Founders wanted the people's work to be done exclusively by the people's representatives, and they were unambiguously committed to checks and balances in the national government. I find this trend towards government by executive order alarming, particularly since there is no grant of such authority in the Constitution itself.

We also need to address the question of war powers.

I went to see Lone Survivor the other night. If I had known how gory it would be I might not have gone. The film is about a special forces raid in Afghanistan that goes terribly wrong; only one individual of a cluster of Navy Seals survives the broken mission. The film is based on a true story. Lone Survivor was so harrowing that there were times when I had to cover my eyes, and afterwards I actually felt the need for a glass of wine. For me, two reactions were unavoidable. First, that we owe our men and women in uniform an unlimited quantity of respect. It's hard to believe that there are Americans who are willing to take such risks, to give (as Lincoln put it), "the last full measure of devotion" to the freedom and security of the United States. But they do.

Second, what the heck are we doing in Afghanistan? We all know that Afghanistan has been invaded by a range of empires in its long sad tribal history, and that the Afghanis always "win," because the occupiers eventually lose heart and go home. Our military troops have performed admirably under difficult conditions there, but we cannot even keep the US-backed puppet government under Hamid Karzai from openly decrying American actions and repeatedly betraying American interests. Who exactly are we fighting for, and to what end? Political stability? Easier to land an astronaut on Mars.

When we finally leave—after what the President called "the longest war in American history"—and the Afghani tribesmen settle into another chapter of their endless civil war, reprisal followed by raid followed by atrocity followed by temporary dictator followed by assassination, does anyone really believe it will have been worth the loss of 2,287 American soldiers (so far)? Who will be the last American to die in Afghanistan? And for what?

Over the past week I have been rereading Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, one of America's greatest books. He, like Jefferson, believed that it was too late in the world's history to settle our international disputes by way of war. It was Franklin, in the Autobiography, who concluded his section on the success of the American Revolution with, "There never was a good war, or a bad peace." The Founding Fathers wanted to make sure war wasn't one of our routine ways of dealing with the rest of the world. So they insisted that wars must be declared by the House of Representatives, the branch of government closest to the people themselves. They insisted that War Department appropriations must be re-authorized every two years, so that we did not fall into the habit of permanent and independent militarism. They believed that wars should be paid for with ready tax money, so that the people would realize how expensive they were and, in most cases, think twice before opening their checkbooks and committing the nation to a species of organized barbarism in which, as Jonathan Swift put it, "A soldier is a Yahoo (man) hired to kill in cold blood as many of his own species, who have never offended him, as possibly he can."

Modern Presidents have far too much independent authority to wage war, and of course we don't actually pay for those wars, except in the lives of the dedicated Americans who go fight them on our behalf.

The highlight of the State of the Union Message was President Obama's beautiful tribute to Army Ranger Sergeant 1st Class Cory Remsburg, who was grievously wounded in Afghanistan and who has endured a long series of operations merely to get about 50% of his body functions back. We owe him and tens of thousands like him way more than a standing ovation and solid veteran's benefits. We owe him a better U.S. government and a more authentic national purpose.