In those days, presidents could, and did, send a written message to Capitol Hill, without appearing. Nor at first was it an annual event. Today, the State of the Union, normally delivered on the final Tuesday of January, is the equivalent of the State Opening of Parliament. It takes place in the evening, broadcast live on the same major networks which no longer deign to carry mere presidential news conferences (unless of course a Monica Lewinsky happens along).
At nine o'clock, the President arrives at the House of Representatives, packed with Cabinet members, Congressmen and Senators and members of the diplomatic corps. Behind him on the rostrum sit the Vice-President and the Speaker, who formally introduces the President.
"The President of the United States," bellows the House Sargeant at Arms. Ancient enmities are briefly forgotten.
In normal times, Mr Clinton would make his way slowly down the aisle into the pit of the chamber, grinning, glad-handing and exchanging greetings with Democrats and Republicans alike.
But this year? For a President enmeshed in the worst scandal of his career, his speech threatens to be excruciating. Plans and policy, budget surpluses, Saddam Hussein? Forget it. Mr Clinton will be on the rostrum. But peering over his shoulder will be the spectre of Monica Lewinsky.
- Rupert CornwellReuse content