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The State of the Union

"The State of the Union": a report, required once a year by the United States Constitution, from the president to congress. The purpose was to recommend actions the congress ought to take for the common welfare.

"The State of the Union": a speech given each January by the president to the combined houses of congress. There are seldom any surprises because congress knows what the president will declare and urge, and the words spoken are largely code to reassure the apprehensive and challenge the hostile.

"The State of the Union": a ceremony in the Nationís Capital televised to the country, showing all of us who it is that we think are representing us in the Federal Government. A yearly coronation to show us who is in charge.

"The State of the Union": a one act play, in which the words are less important than the ritual itself. Audience applause is part of the play, coming at the end of nearly every sentence. Sometimes one side of the audience (the presidentís side) stands to applaud, other times both sides stand, depending upon the level of patriotic oratory involved. Every member of the audience is aware that the world is watching to see if they stand or not, if they applaud or not, if they smile or not, for that is the way that the members of congress signal to their constituency about their own loyalties.

"The State of the Union": a gesture, much like the Pledge of Allegiance or The Lordís Prayer, often totally irrelevant to the speakerís commitment to any value.

"The State of the Union": a verbal fireworks display, carefully designed to not offend oneís friends nor to show weakness to oneís enemies.

"The State of the Union": an event having almost nothing to do with the state of the union, and everything to do with showing off.

On the evening following the State of the Union address, I watched a biography of a man, Bayard Rustin, on PBS. Rustin was an activist for civil rights before there was a civil rights movement. He was an elder statesman to Martin Luther King at the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He reminded King, then, of the real meaning of non-violence; he had spoken to Mahatma Gandhi about what it means to "go, defenseless and undefending" of oneís self when promoting non-violence toward others. He spoke with power and eloquence to arouse people to stand up, and he spoke of compromise and negotiation when the nationís attention had become focused on the problem. As part of the team headed by Philip Randolph, he organized the 1963 March on Washington, probably the turning point of the civil rights struggle.

That event was a genuine State of the Union message to the American people and to the congress and to the president himself.

I watched the program about Rustin, feeling I was learning something I had perhaps overlooked in those days. Perhaps not; perhaps I had noticed, but had since forgotten. Watching the film clips from those days, not of the 250,000 people massing on the Mall before the Lincoln Memorial but of the tens and twentys of defenseless people walking along the sidewalks of Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia saying simply, "We count," I felt a connection to them and an admiration for their courage that is far beyond anything I could summon. I was too busy, myself, in those days to respond the way I now wish I had. Sure, I walked in protest marches, down the peaceful streets of Ames, Iowa, not about civil rights but about a war I thought we had no business fighting. The war itself was half a world away. There was no danger to me or my family in those marches. We laughed with friends as we walked and sang songs borrowed from those who a few years earlier had braved dogs and fire hoses and clubs and tear gas and hatred spit from the mouths of onlookers.

The world is not the simple place it was then. Justice is more difficult to find. Well, perhaps. Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson and yes, even Nixon, faced a garish flaw in our society all while dealing with threats from the outside and complexities from within. Politics is seldom a clear path to the better good. The government was forced by increased public awareness to seek ways to close the open wound that America had lived with and suffered from since its very beginning.

The state of the union is better now. Not all our problems are solved. Not all our wounds are healed. The president is confronted by an incredible flood of conflicting needs and incompatible priorities. Maybe itís too much to expect of a government official to see clearly, much less to know what to do with, what to some of us are obvious needs. We might wish that John Kennedy could have said at his 1963 State of the Union address the same words that Martin Luther King spoke seven months later, "I have a dream . . ."

Maybe the State of the Union address is not for dreams, even if they are our dreams, even if they are the presidentís dreams. Maybe itís the place for a peacockís preening, a flexing of muscles, political code talk, and secret signals. Maybe we expect too much from it. Maybe we expect too much from our government.

Maybe our dreams, like those voiced by the Reverend on that August day and from thousands of marchers singing, canít be entrusted to politicians. Presidents are not martyrs; thatís not in their job descriptions. Stillówe wish for a voice.

When Kennedy spoke, forty years ago this month, all he said about civil rights was to press for the opportunity of every citizen to vote, and to seek a lower rate of unemployment. If he had lived another year, following the March on Washington perhaps he, too, would have had something else to say in his State of the Union message of 1964.

Something like, "From the dome of the nationís capitol, let freedom ring!"

 

Donald Skiff, January 31, 2003

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