Thursday, February 4, 2010

#200 Two Presidents and Their First "State of the Union"

Nobody messed with George W. (no, not that one). A giant of a man for his day at 6' 2" and around 200 pounds , our first President stood more than half-a-foot above the average everybody else. Add to that Washington's legendary strength and agility, whether on horseback or the ballroom floor, and you've got the 18C equivalent of our Hunky Celeb, worthy of a Cosmo centerfold.

And on the field of battle? Fugedaboudit. He was well-nigh superhuman ... and absolutely front-line, horses-shot-from-under-him fearless. It helped that he could actually dodge bullets. But here's my favorite anecdote in regard to his instinctive courage, matched with amazing physical strength: It so happened on one occasion during the difficult days at Valley Forge that the General lost his (usually controlled but always to-be-wary-of) temper with two disgruntled and scuffling soldiers of about his size. He reportedly rushed into the fray, grabbed them separately in each of his reputedly oversize hands, levitated them both, and crashed their bodies together. Peace restored. Later, to make his point, he'd just have would-be mutineers shot.

Nobody messed with the Man from Mt. Vernon. You can imagine the figure he "cut" before Congress, especially if he chose to wear--and I like to think he did--his ceremonial sabre, pictured above at the ready. Do you think that one of the assembled Congressional company would have had the temerity to interject a "You lie!" into the proceedings?

Now, the official portrait guy, Gilbert Stuart, didn't capture his patron in paint while he was actually making THE very first "Presidential Address to Congress," as the "State of the Union" thing was called then--probably because it was so inconvenient for everybody. The "District of Columbia" just wasn't ready yet. The two houses of Congress were meeting temporarily in New York City, and the new President was anywhere and everywhere he needed to be. (His druthers: Mt. Vernon, of course.) But he must have felt it was important to fulfill in person THIS particular Constitutional mandate vis a' vis the Legislative branch and the new country's first CEO:
He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the state of the union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient. (Article II, Section 3)
And he did, on Jan. 8, 1790. For the very first time. Washington the great Precedent-Setter (e.g. two-terms and out with the exception of FDR) set for all time the WHEN--near the first of the year--and the HOW OFTEN--"from time to time" will mean annually--but NOT precisely the MANNER in which this "information" should be "given" to Congress. He and Adams presented it orally, but Jefferson was the Spoiler. He thought such a practice smacked of King-like ostentation--too much like those other Georges in full regalia addressing the opening of the British Parliament. So during our 3rd President's tenure the annual SOTU was delivered to Congress in written form only, and read into the record by a clerk. In so doing, he set a precedent of his own. Succeeding Presidents for over a century followed Jefferson's example, right up to Wilson and Harding, who revived oral presentation fitfully during their reigns.

But no surprise: the Great Populist FDR would be the one to re-set forever the Washingtonian example of getting in front of CONGRESS, and virtually the PEOPLE too, via radio, at least once-a-year. Now, since Truman and Television, the President is literally "live and in color" for the whole of America. Taken for granted.

However, it's all a rather radical departure from the old Constitutional imperative, which, when you look at it again, doesn't seem so imperative at all. The "from time to time" business. I think that's a notional by-product of the Framers' bed-rock bias of near-absolute Separation of Powers. For example, there's no mandate whatsoever for the Supreme Court justices to be in attendance, which is now seemingly de rigeur. Unlike Obama, President Washington wouldn't have had to put up with a snarky little Sam Alito shaking his head and lip-syncing, "Not true," during his speech. Good thing, too. There would have been an "appointment" involving Mr. Alito and the General in the Capitol cloak-room, afterwards. With or without his sabre. (more)

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