President Carter returns to a once prevailing tradition in deciding not to deliver his State of the Union message to Congress in person. But we confess to wishing he would change his mind, especially if one of the reason for staying away is the expectation of a hostile atmosphere in Congress. Such an expectation is reportedly attributed by White House aides to a wounding Democratic primary campaign and Carter differnces with some members of both parties.
Our feeling, however, is that the President would be given a warm reception in the spirit of letting bygones be bygones on such an occasion. Even if this were not so, a televised annual message to Congress provides a vehicle for final thoughts of substance that cannot lightly be replaced by a separate TV address as planned by the White House. Such a message to lawmakers implies action. By delivering it in person, particularly in a television age, a president can underscore a sense of the historymaking possibilities often found in State of the Union messages: the Monroe Doctrine, Wilson's Fourteen Points.
George Washington and John Adams give their State of the Union messages almost the panoply of royal visitations. Thomas Jefferson ruffled Congress's feathers by sending his messages to be read by a clerk. But the Jeffersonian practice hung until Woodrow Wilson again surprised Congress by appearing in person in 1913. Calvin Coolidge went on national radio with his messages. And the American electronic audience has come to expect to share the State of the Union event with its congressional representatives more than in the day of Herbert Hoover -- the last elected and then defeated incumbent -- who sent over his final annual message as Mr. Carter plans to do. Mr. Carter conquered rival in 1976, Gerald Ford, did not hesitate to appear before Congress and the public with his last State of the Union address.
Was it because they didn't appear "live" before the nation that America could all too easily ignore the forward-looking advice of departing losers in the past? In retrospect, wouldn't some problems, have been forestalled if the public had pressed Congress at the time on the tariff reform advocated by John Quincy Adams? On the end of the slave trade called for by Martin Van Buren? On Grover Cleveland's warning against both the communism of Marx and the "communism of combined wealth and capital, the outgrowth of overweening cupidity and selfishness"? On Benjamin Harrison's denunciation of lynching and call to continued national greatness: "There are no near frontiers to our possible development. Retrogression would be a crime. . . "? And on Hoover's declaration that the federal government "can permit of no privilege to any person or group," that it "should act as a regulatory agent and not as a participant in economic and social life"?
In short, there is ample precedent for Jimmy Carter not to let his defeat keep him from saying something of importance to his country -- and affirming its importance to him by delivering it to the Congress in person and on camera.