“The state of our union is strong.” Ronald Reagan first made that boast in his 1983 address to Congress, and strong became an enduring theme. Bill Clinton adopted the sentence in all eight appearances, and it has been an applause line ever since. Those seven words you must say on television stir what kids call “the feels.”
So why hasn’t Congress heard them from President Biden? He promised to appear in February, but backtracked, pushing the date indefinitely and later than any president in history. By way of spin, his press secretary denied he ever made the pledge, while we’re scolded that the U.S. Constitution fixes no date, and the requirement was fulfilled in writing back when mutton chops were chic.
Great tidbits if you’re looking to score a history wedge in Trivial Pursuit, but stakes are considerably higher than a boardgame. Threats by terrorists, Twitter loudmouths and militia groups to attack the Capitol again make it all the more urgent that our president step up to that lectern.
This simple act will prompt Democrats and Republicans to cheer. It’ll also show us two women sitting behind an American president, a first for Women’s History Month, one likely to prompt comparisons to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher speaking moments after an IRA bomb nearly killed her.
My late boss, Rush Limbaugh, was fond of saying that politics was “showbiz for the ugly,” and showbiz it sure is. The old razzle-dazzle. That’s why he called it the State of the Union Show. But it’s also why he teared up at last year’s address when Donald Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, earning applause from members on both sides for his valiant battle against cancer.
Rush preferred substance over style but knew that some symbols have substance. Take President James Madison, the father of the Constitution. A sickly man of 63 and nobody’s idea of a Klingon warrior, he rode into the Battle of Bladensburg, rallying troops against the invading British. Our shortest president never stood taller.
In 1864, Adm. David Farragut likewise sailed into the face of death, shouting, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” His victory over the slave states helped create a stronger union. Even seeing the Confederacy ooze up to the banks of the Potomac (hoisting the same flag that recently soiled the halls of Congress), government of, by and for the people didn’t duck and cover. When coastal cities feared shelling by Spain in the 1898 conflict, D.C. kept calm and carried on, too, just as commanders-in-chief briefed Congress throughout the World Wars and pandemics.
George W. Bush returned to the White House as the 9/11 attacks unfolded, refusing to let any “tinhorn terrorist” keep him away. On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, 150 members of Congress assembled on the Capitol steps to sing “God Bless America,” despite the fact that al Qaeda had targeted the majestic dome itself. At a joint session nine days later, Mr. Bush declared, “[T]he entire world has seen for itself the state of union — and it is strong.”
Although Jan. 6 was nothing like flying planes into buildings, it did feature a tinhorn terrorist, albeit one decked out like a demented Minnesota Vikings fan. By speaking to Congress, Mr. Biden proves that no threats, foreign or domestic, will keep him from faithfully executing the office of president, and that our democracy ends not with a whimper, or with a sneeze.
In “Beyond the Great Divide,” former governor of New York George Pataki describes the balancing act of leadership. He recounted staying in Manhattan on 9/11, overruling his security detail who urged a retreat to Albany. He later made a point of visiting restaurants, inspiring New Yorkers even as threats poured in and anthrax Valentines appeared in mailboxes.
It’s always easy for those of us in the cheap seats to complain that our leaders are hyping imaginary threats or playing politics. Certainly, Mr. Biden has intel we don’t, just as Mr. Bush and Mr. Pataki did. But Farragut is a hero precisely because the torpedoes were real.
Mr. Biden must declare full speed ahead, must remind us that the ties binding generations of plurbis into unum have not been weakened by rhetoric the way burning airline fuel weakens steel. Even if Congress only assembles 150 members again — a socially distanced COVID-19 quorum — Mr. Biden must march into the Peoples’ House. He must call out some extraordinary Americans in the gallery (another Reagan innovation) and reassure us that, as another president told a Capitol under threat, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Mr. Biden’s persona is that of a scrappy kid from Scranton, itching to slug foes, challenge voters to pushup contests and swing a bicycle chain at street toughs. If that’s his substance, he’ll give the speech, and include a mild rebuke of those who wanted to play it safe.
If he’s mere symbolism, a figurehead, he may as well go back to submitting the address in writing. The speech can still invoke the seven words, but they’ll ring hollow. The substance will be Gerald Ford’s malaise preview of 1975, “The state of the union is not good,” and after 250 years of trying, the tinhorns will be the ones boasting about their strength while America cowers in the basement.
• Dean Karayanis is content producer for RushLimbaugh.com and host of History Author Show on iHeartRadio.