At the annual winter dinner of the Gridiron, an organization of journalists founded in 1885, there is only one toast, and it’s to the president. For some members and guests, this now poses a quandary. As we raised our glasses, the Gridiron member I sat next to offered the ideal solution. “To the presidency,” he said.
That came to mind as some people prepared to bid good riddance to the State of the Union speech and the crass platform for partisan politics that it’s become. Speaker Pelosi had refused to allow President Trump to give his speech in the House she leads until the government is opened.
And Trump blinked. It wasn’t exactly the Cuban missile crisis, but the very broad outline is the same: two great powers at war, and one using leverage over our made-for-TV president—not nuclear weapons but her control over a forum that last year attracted 46 million viewers.
Trump’s blink led to a full cave two days later with a deal that reopens the government and allows Trump to come to the Capitol and try to recoup some of the ground he lost over the last five weeks with this high-profile event.
Some argue that set pieces like the SOTU have outlived their usefulness in a time where news is instant and voters want authenticity, not some politician reading from a teleprompter while his party cheers.
I’m not one of them. I love the SOTU. It’s one of my favorite TV nights of the year. I love seeing who stands and claps, and who sits on their hands. The critics savaged President Clinton for his lengthy SOTUs, but the public loved them and delivered high ratings to the networks.
Bill Clinton’s 1995 speech was over 9,000 words, and took well over an hour to deliver. And who can forget the SOTU he delivered in January 1998, after news broke of his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. A record number of people tuned in to see how he would address the scandal. He said nothing about it, and would later chuckle, when complimented on the speech, “Helluva way to raise a crowd.”
This year, Trump has heightened interest in his SOTU with all the drama around the government shutdown. And let’s not forget that as the speech proceeds as originally scheduled on Jan. 29th, it makes an important constitutional point about unity in a democracy.
This is the one time the entire government assembles–the justices of the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs, and the entire Cabinet, except for one designated member to stay behind should there be some dastardly attack. It’s an important statement about democracy and unity.
South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson went over the line when he shouted “You lie” during President Obama’s 2009 SOTU, foreshadowing the angry partisanship of the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus. Wilson—who was reprimanded by his House colleagues—later apologized for his “lack of civility,” saying he “let my emotions get the best of me” after Obama said that undocumented immigrants would not be covered by his health-care proposal.
The SOTU is not the only tradition that Trump has stretched to the breaking point with his antics. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders hasn’t done a single briefing this year, and she went long stretches last year without talking to the press on camera in the briefing room.
“I told her not to bother, the word gets out anyway,” Trump said this week, adding as further rationale that reporters “cover her so rudely and inaccurately.”
As a reporter who has attended White House briefings beginning with the Carter administration, they’ve never been my favorite time of the day. And they’re not as important with a president who has a Twitter feed. But for lots of news outlets whose reporters don’t get in the backrooms with Sarah Sanders, it’s their window into the presidency. And if you look back at Watergate, there were lots of memorable moments in those briefings, beginning with Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler dismissing the Watergate break-in as a “third-rate burglary.” After Nixon was forced to resign, Ziegler apologized to the Washington Post for being so dismissive.
Just because the Trump administration has denigrated the daily briefing doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause forever. Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry has said that he regrets being the one to open the briefing to cameras, which encourages too much grandstanding, but that battle would have been lost eventually anyway.
Future press secretaries will have a very low base line from which to improve. No more lying would be a good starting point.
None of these institutions or traditions are perfect but eliminating them chips away at democracy, and offers fewer settings in which reporters can hold White House officials accountable, and observe their body language.
Which brings me to the White House Correspondents Dinner, an event that jumped the shark a long time ago, taken over by glitz and celebrity. But it too, at its core, has a valuable tradition to uphold in a democracy. There is still something healthy about roasting the president while he’s sitting there. The dinner organizers have opted this year for a historian, steering clear of a comedian who might offend Trump should he choose to attend.
I can’t applaud surrendering all these institutions, however outdated, to a president and his Twitter feed. There will be life after Trump. The presidency is what we honor and toast in a democracy, not necessarily the president. Pelosi, third in line to the president, set the terms of their engagement for the next two years with her actions this week.