A few million people will be watching When President Trump delivers his State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress on Jan. 29.
The first was delivered in about 10 minutes by George Washington on Jan. 8, 1790. At barely 800 words, it was the shortest of them all. Like the federal government itself, the subsequent ones grew far more in size than in quality.
Bill Clinton holds the record for the longest State of the Union Address in U.S. history – a stupefying one hour and 28 minutes of nothing that anyone remembers. That was in 2000.
Whether the country wants to hear a State of the Union or not, every president gives us one each year because the Constitution mandates it. How long it is and what ground it covers is up to each President. He can make it as general or as specific as he chooses, and as partisan or non-partisan as he desires.
When Washington spoke on Jan. 8, 1790, federal spending as a share of GDP was about 1.5 percent (it’s 14 times that today). Federal debt was an estimated 30 percent of GDP but it was on a path to zero, which it reached by the 1830s. The new nation was at peace with a new Constitution in place and most people wanted to get on with their lives. They expected the national government to tend to its limited business of keeping the country free, get it done at minimal expense and otherwise leave them alone.
Washington opened by congratulating the House and Senate for presiding over “the present favorable prospects of our public affairs.” He noted the country’s strong credit and the impressive degree of respect America had earned in the world.
The most important matter deserving of the Congress’s attention, Washington advised, was “the common defense.” That is so politically incorrect in our age, when 80 percent of federal spending has nothing to do with defense and lots to do with redistributive transfer payments and interest on past debts. To our first President, the federal government’s chief responsibility was to protect this nation, not a hundred others.
Washington mentioned the importance of education, science and literature but did not propose any specific federal ventures in this regard. Noting that “Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness,” he urged in the same breath “a speedy but temperate vigilance against encroachments [on liberty], with an inviolable respect to the laws.”
Wow! A State of the Union Address that didn’t make promises that couldn’t be kept, didn’t try to buy anybody’s vote with somebody else’s money, didn’t propose anything that violated the spirit or the letter of the Constitution, didn’t mortgage our liberties with handouts. How refreshing!
Keep it short and sweet, set the tone, focus on the fundamentals. And it was all over in 10 minutes. The very thought of it makes me pine for the days when government knew its limits and its proper place, and the people did, too. We were too busy building a nation then to let a politician spend 90 minutes of our time telling us about it.
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education. He writes about exceptional people, including many from his book, “Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org