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Dr. Jekyll, Mr. State of the Union

Trump will speak of unity and togetherness. So nice, right?

At last year’s State of the Union, the president spoke of “one American family.” It wasn’t long before that heartwarming message went up in a puff of Twitter smoke, Murphy writes. (Win McNamee/Getty Images file photo)
At last year’s State of the Union, the president spoke of “one American family.” It wasn’t long before that heartwarming message went up in a puff of Twitter smoke, Murphy writes. (Win McNamee/Getty Images file photo)

OPINION — I love a tradition more than anybody, but the modern State of the Union address, which President Trump will deliver again Tuesday night, has descended into the most ridiculous annual hour and a half of nonsense that the country has to endure other than the Super Bowl. Can somebody please put America out of this misery?

The idea of an American president briefing Congress was originally such a practical necessity that it was codified in the Constitution. Without modern communications and with travel into and out of the capital difficult, the Founding Fathers correctly decided that the president should communicate regularly with the representatives of the states about the government they were all a part of.

President George Washington gave the first annual address and rightly kept it short and sweet. A little over 1,000 words was all Washington needed to outline to Congress his belief that the young country needed to establish its armed forces, consider a national university to educate young people, and agree on uniform currency, weights and measures to smooth interstate commerce. Washington put the rest in writing and told members of the House and Senate he looked forward to cooperating with them “in the pleasing though arduous task” of working for the American people. Boom.

Presidents in the following years continued to address Congress annually, either in person or in writing. President Thomas Jefferson literally mailed his in, saying that he felt an in-person address read a little too much like a royal decree — in other words, very un-American. 

President Woodrow Wilson restarted the spoken tradition, and FDR, LBJ and President George W. Bush used their addresses to lay out the defining principles of their presidencies, including the Four Freedoms, the Great Society and the Global War on Terror.

But in too many of the years of the modern presidency, the speeches devolved into bloated and boring word piles, like a grocery list for a family of 300 million. President Jimmy Carter gave a 33,000-word written report to Congress in 1981. President Bill Clinton spoke for an hour and 29 minutes in 2000. What did they say in all that time? What didn’t they say?

But as bad as those were, those speeches were at least sincere, which is more than we can say about Trump’s. In both of his past addresses to Congress, and in the one he’ll deliver tonight, the president declares a deep and urgent commitment to unifying both the capital and the nation — only to torch his fellow Americans on Twitter nearly every day after that.

In 2017, the president declared, “I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart.” So nice, right?

He went on to say, “The time for trivial fights is behind us.”

But the president’s Twitter feed, which reflects far more of his actual thinking than any prepared speech, reveals a man, both before and after his address to Congress, in constant attack mode against the very people in that House chamber that night.

Of Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis, Trump tweeted: “Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to….mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad!”

He also called for Rep. Frederica Wilson’s defeat (“Wacky Congresswoman Wilson is the gift that keeps on giving for the Republican Party!”) and suggested that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was a prostitute for campaign cash: “Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a total flunky for Chuck Schumer and someone who would come to my office “begging” for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump.”

But wait! In the next year’s State of the Union, a fresh call for togetherness. “Tonight, I want to talk about what kind of future we are going to have, and what kind of nation we are going to be,” he said. “All of us, together, as one team, one people, and one American family can do anything.” So inspirational. But …

It didn’t take long before Trump was tweeting about Rep. Maxine Waters (“an extraordinarily low IQ person”) or asking why Sen. Mark Warner, “perhaps in a near drunken state, is claiming he has information that only he and Bob Mueller, the leader of the 13 Angry Democrats on a Witch Hunt, knows?”

The president also called Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer “Cryin’ Chuck,” Sen. Jeff Flake “Flake-y,” and claimed that former Republican Sen. Bob Corker “‘begged’ me to endorse him for re-election in Tennessee. I said ‘NO’ and he dropped out (said he could not win without.” The list of insults, derangements and belittling names for the people he asked to work with him just months before goes on and on and on.

Tonight, we’re told the president will challenge Americans to “choose greatness.” He’ll also reach out to Congress. Again. “Together we can break decades of political stalemate, we can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future. The decision is ours to make” — and his to rage-tweet tomorrow.

More than any president before him, Trump’s annual calls for cohesion, sandwiched between ferocious and sustained verbal assaults on his colleagues, have to make us ask why we’re going through this charade. It would make more sense to wait until Wednesday morning for the Tweets of the Union, bank three extra hours of sleep on Tuesday night, and call it a day.

Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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