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Nancy Pelosi Might Have Just Blown Up the State of the Union. And That’s OK.

In 1974, the Watergate investigation was blowing up around the White House, and Congress looked well on its way to impeaching President Richard Nixon. But on January 30 it all came to a standstill as Nixon walked into the Capitol, stood before Congress, and delivered the State of the Union address. Members of both parties stood respectfully when he entered and left.

In 1998, the House of Representatives actually did impeach Bill Clinton. But he came to Capitol Hill a month later and delivered an address that made no acknowledgment of that fact. Members of both parties stood respectfully when he entered and left.

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When Congressman Joe Wilson interrupted a speech by President Barack Obama to a joint session of Congress and yelled “you lie!”, the breach of civility was so startling that he was formally reprimanded by the Republican-controlled House and apologized.

The rituals of respect around these speeches are so ingrained that you might have thought that the century-old practice of presidents delivering their State of the Union messages in person would survive even in the highly charged atmosphere of Donald Trump’s Washington in January 2019, with a partial government shutdown in effect and a looming tsunami of investigations driven by a Democratic House of Representatives.

You would be wrong.

In her historic letter Wednesday morning, Speaker Nancy Pelosi essentially disinvited Trump from delivering his address as planned on January 29. By way of explanation, her letter cited concerns about security stemming from the government shutdown. It is not beyond plausibility that she might have had two other concerns:

First: What happens if the new and more militant members of my caucus refuse to stand for the president, or interrupt his speech with catcalls?

Second: Do I really want to give this particular president a national platform to make his case on the shutdown?

She has good cause to worry about that second point. Elevated by all the pomp and pageantry of a State of the Union address, even Trump can manage to appear presidential—which could pose a political hazard for Democrats scrambling to avoid being blamed for the longest shutdown in American history.

Both concerns clearly smack of politics, and will trigger responses that Pelosi is doing serious harm to the republic by willfully upending an important symbol of comity, perhaps one that we need more than ever right now. The whole ritual of the State of the Union, patterned on Britain’s address from the sovereign, is the most notable occasion when a president speaks as the American head of state, rather than as the leader of his or her party. Erasing that from the calendar would take us one step further down the bleak road to a country in which nothing, even our most neutral shared institutions, is worth more than its short-term political value.

As Pelosi’s defenders will be quick to point out, however, we have never had a president more careless, if not eager, to smash just about every other symbol of comity and civility he can find. When Clinton spoke to Congress—the legislative body that had just impeached him—he began by congratulating the new (Republican) speaker and said: “Mr. Speaker, at your swearing-in, you asked us all to work together in a spirit of civility and bipartisanship. Mr. Speaker, let’s do exactly that.”

It is no exaggeration to say that for this president, there is no occasion when civility and bipartisanship are not excess weight to be thrown over the side. In his first days in office, he used a CIA ceremony honoring fallen agents to brag about the election. When he spoke to U.S. troops overseas recently, he attacked Democrats. He has assailed institutions from his own Justice Department to the FBI to the press by attacking their honesty and their patriotism. And in so doing, he has managed to engender among his critics the belief that he is not just wrong on policy, but—in the words of former CIA Director John Brennan—a clear and present danger to our national security.

But the issue with the address in 2019 goes beyond Trump. The State of the Union may still wear the outer garb of a respectful and neutral routine, with enrobed Supreme Court justices sitting in prominent seats, and members of opposing parties often sharing the dais. But the event has long since curdled into the exact kind of partisanship it is supposed to transcend, its rituals more a papering-over of our political rancor than a moment that genuinely brings us together.

The chamber is studded with “regular Americans” handpicked to offer sentimental backing to not just the president’s policy ideas, but his cultural messaging. Once the speech begins, with clockwork reliability, half the chamber will stand to applaud certain phrases, splitting precisely on partisan lines; it has even become a bit of a game to goad your opponents into being caught sitting down, or forcing them into dutiful applause for veterans and other national shibboleths.

The Constitution does require the president to report “Information of the State of the Union” to Congress, but there’s no requirement that it be a speech—it was delivered in writing until Woodrow Wilson showed up in person in 1913— and we’ve long passed the time when it contained any useful “information” at all.

So maybe Pelosi has done all of us—including the president—a favor by postponing (if not canceling) an address that this year promises to be even more of a sham than usual. And maybe, given the dreary ritual that such speeches offer, Trump might want to take the unsolicited advice I offered a year ago: Return to the tradition established by Thomas Jefferson, have everyone stay home, and just deliver the thing in writing.

Jeff Greenfield is a five-time Emmy-winning network television analyst and author.

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