SOU address rescheduled; stand by for more drama

jules witcover

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, true to her word, has reinvited President Trump to deliver his State of the Union address on her home turf next Tuesday, he having agreed to reopen the shutdown government. And he has accepted.

So it should be a particularly interesting and well-attended event in the House chamber, when he strides in to the traditional announcement: “Madame Speaker, the President of the United States!”

During and after their recent dust-up, wherein she bluntly rejected Trump’s demand for the $5.7 billion for his southern border wall, he cheekily referred to her as “Nancy.” But in his written acceptance he used her more formal designation. Such was her immediate reward for her victory over him in the standoff.

The question now is whether the State of the Union message he will deliver will be a truthful and accurate account of that state. By all reasonable assessments it is deplorable, in the wake of the shutdown he deliberately inflicted on the country and the 800,000 federal workers sent home without paychecks.

Trump’s written acceptance of Pelosi’s reinvitation suggests otherwise. In declaring it would be “a great honor” to speak in her official house rather than at some lesser venue, he insisted: “we have a great story to tell, and yet goals to achieve.” He concluded: “I look forward to seeing you on the 5th (of February).” Really?

Predictably, the president will accentuate the positive, which, until the recent stock-market volatility, had been seen as his administration’s crowning measure of achievement. But will he address the month-long breakdown of presidential governance? It has been, or should be, central to the oath of office he took two years ago “to faithfully execute” the powers of that lofty position.

Previous presidents in recent years have used the State of the Union speech not simply to boast of their accomplishments. They also have showcased individual Americans who one way or another played an essential role in the drama. They or their widows have been seated in the visitors’ gallery as national heroes, and they have been introduced by name from the presidential perch.

Will President Trump call on any of the federal workers who toiled without pay, performing essential services during the recent shutdown, or their wives who had to find ways to feed their children or provide required medicine for ill kinsfolk, to take a bow? Don’t hold your breath in anticipation.

It will be particularly interesting to see whether attending members of Congress on the Republican side of the aisle will rise and applaud with customary enthusiasm, as their leader accentuates the positives of his two-year stewardship of the nation.

In recent times, some presidential scholars and critics have pondered whether the State of the Union institution has finally outlived its usefulness. Does it any longer accurately and constructively report to the legislators and the broader public watching or listening on television and radio?

From the earliest days when President Woodrow Wilson first delivered the address in person, to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats over the airwaves before and during World War II, such direct communications from the president to the public at large have become institutions.

As Trump approaches giving his State of the Union report, he is beleaguered by his unschooled political blundering and reckless disregard for the welfare of his own constituents. The reaction may measure his ability to retain the substantial but minority public support that has enabled him to cling to power.

More significantly, Donald Trump must fear now the impact of his chaotic behavior and governing failures on members of his own Republican Party. For the GOP’s very survival, they must soon wake up to the severe disruption caused by this wrecking ball of an unqualified president, and seek a way out for themselves and their country.

Americans are facing a national emergency all right, but it has nothing to do with the southern border or the vanity wall Trump demands. It’s the mindless and destructive leader who is harming the world’s greatest democracy, and who urgently needs to be removed from office, whether by impeachment or by the ballot box in 2020.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcovercomcast.net.