I am not sure how I arrive at places I arrive when surfing the Internet.
Tonight I found myself in the NY Times archives reading past State of the Union Addresses from Fillmore in 1851 and Lincoln in 1861. Interesting that I had to READ the addresses, not watch them on television. These addresses were very different than today's addresses. What we watch today as a "State of the Union" address is no more than a continuing diatribe of the politics espoused by the incumbent president. It is not an accounting or a summary or a report on the 'state' of our nation at all! . And that makes me sad.
These old state of the union addresses were REALLY state of the union addresses! They were a general accounting to the congress, senate and the citizens of the United States the actual state of our union. It was information- where we stood regarding war and peace. A telling of difficulties and friendships with foreign nations. There was mention of what land we were purchasing in the great western territories and how relations were with the 'aboriginal Indians' of the great plains. Of great concern was our neighbor to the south, Mexico. Border disputes were many and border patrols were requested by our presidents to secure our borders. (some thing just don't change).
There was a lengthy reporting on our financial state as a nation. How much money we took in and how our money was spent and how we spent it. What a concept- an actual accounting of how OUR money was spent in a given year.
The president broke it down in very easy to understand line items. First was how much revenue we took in as a country- in taxes, loans, profits, in things like gold mined in California. Then reported was how the money was spent. How much the Army, Navy and Marines cost to run that year.
For instance: total United States revenues for the year 1861 totalled $86,835,900.27. Total expenditures for the same time, including payment on the national debt was $84,578,034.47, leaving a balance in the treasury of $2,257,065.80. This I can understand.
Interesting side note: in these addresses presidents always mentioned Washington D.C. and how the citizens of that city have no representation in the congress and so he would talk about what that city needed- new fire equipment, money to expand the Capital building, road paving and street cleaning...and how much money was actually spent on these items, as it was taxpayers dollars that funded Washington D.C.
There was an accounting of the post office - how much revenue in and out and if current postage was sufficient or not. The president reported on territories and asked congress to act on certain laws on behalf of the territories.
How did we get so far away from those simple ideas in a little over one hundred years? It was so clear then. (Even during the Civil War, which when one reads Lincoln's state of the union for 1861, the union almost didn't make it. That war placed tremendous strains on the country and that it came through whole and able to function is a testament to our Constitution.) Basically, the presidents' job was to defend and preserve the Constitution and defend the country from all enemies, both foreign and domestic. That was it. Clear and simple.
The Constitution says, in Article II, Section 3, is that the president shall "from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."
When did it become so large and so far reaching that we lost that basic premise? Today it seems that the last thing a president does is to give information of the State of the Union. Today's address is a once-a-year opportunity to further an agenda. To talk about vision, to rally supporters, to define the upcoming political debate. Nada on the information stuff...that, dear readers has become extinct. And that is a damn shame.