Yesterday someone instant messaged me the joke about the "ironic juxtaposition of events". Wasn't it funny, they wrote, that the Groundhog Day and the State of the Union Address fell on the same day? The comedian explained that "one involves a meaningless ritual in which we look to a creature of little intelligence for prognostication, while the other involves a groundhog". Amusing, except yesterday wasn't Groundhog Day. Nevertheless bloggers, didn't seem to notice this fact. Similarly, last year the same joke was repeated, by countless bloggers, Last year the President didn't deliver his State of the Union Address on Groundhog Day, but on January 31, 2006.
On February 2, 2005, the Presidential State of the Union address fell on Groundhog Day. It's only happened once in history. Yet people have created their own myth by mixing up the story in the movie Groundhog Day, with the folktale of the groundhog's shadow, with the perennial fictions of the annual State of the Union addresses. Why? Are people cynical enough to predict the redundancy in the Presidential address, yet mindless of their own repetitive fiction? What is the state of our union?
Not that you can blame anyone for jumbling about all the dates and years and events and players. Regardless of whether it's science, or terror, or secrets, or soldiers or ministers in Iraq, the politicians and the media mix up the terrorists with the heroes, the saviors with the villains and pawns, and the scapegoats with the plebes, not to mention the facts with the junk. They try quite hard to confuse us about all of this. How could anyone keep track?
This particular administrations' rhetoric does tend to sound the same, year after year -- whether they're advancing a new scheme for Medicare, for health insurance, for Iraq, or Iran, for tax cuts, or breaks, or energy, or the environment, or foreign oil. Take our dependence on foreign oil, which threatens our economy and security, feeds our voracious appetite for petroleum and results in anthropogenic global warming that in turn threatens our economy and our health.
President George W. Bush broached the subject of foreign oil dependence in his 2001 "Address on Administration Goals (Budget Message)". He said "America must become more energy independent.". To resolve the issue he announced: "I have asked Federal agencies to work with California officials to help speed construction of new energy sources. Since that pledge at the start of his term, Bush has reiterated the problem in subsequent State of the Union Addresses, year after year, always with variations of the same solution, always with the same furrow of intent and appliqué of resolve.
- In 2002 George Bush said "[Congress] must act to...encourage conservation, promote technology...[and] increase energy production at home so America is less dependent on foreign oil."
- In 2003 George Bush said "I have sent [Congress] a comprehensive energy plan to promote energy efficiency and conservation..." "Our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles...Join me in this important innovation to make our air significantly cleaner and our country much less dependent on foreign sources of energy."
- In 2004 George Bush said "I urge [Congress] to pass legislation to modernize our electricity system, promote conservation...and make America less dependent on foreign sources of energy."
- In 2005 George Bush said "I submitted a comprehensive energy strategy that encourages conservation, alternative sources...leading-edge technology... "I urge Congress to pass legislation that makes America more secure and less dependent on foreign energy."
- In 2006 George Bush said: We will invest more in zero- emission coal-fired plants; revolutionary solar and wind technologies; and clean, safe nuclear energy...." "We have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world...."
- In 2007, last night, the President noted with disconcerting familiarity, "it is in our vital interest to diversify Americas energy supply and the way forward is through technology...For too long our Nation has been dependent on foreign oil."
We understand why people lose their sense of time, feel that they are stuck forever in the past, that some record is skipping irritatingly on some too familiar tune. George Bush has forever promised that technology will solve global warming, will help us conserve, will ease our dependence on foreign oil; yet he denies climate change, refuses to take a stance on carbon emissions... We could easily continue to vilify the unpopular George Bush, thrash away at the culprit that we've caricatured, like some blind-folded children at a Piñata party. But that's already been done.
Furthermore, Mr. Bush isn't the only President who has promised his way through a State of Union address. He wasn't the only president who freshly discovered the U.S. foreign dependence on oil and vowed to resolve the problem. Bush is merely singing the same soothing lullaby that has put us to sleep for centuries. Here's a sampling of what other presidents had to say about the problem in their State of the Union Addresses, throughout United States history and the evolution of technologies, challenges, national trade policies, and international strife¹.
- In 1883 Chester Arthur gave us a hint of things to come in his State of the Union address, saying that, "our petroleum exports are hampered in Turkey and in other Eastern ports by restrictions as to storage and by onerous taxation."
- In 1907 Theodore Roosevelt warned that "the mineral wealth of the country, the coal, iron, oil, gas, and the like, does not reproduce itself, and therefore is certain to be exhausted ultimately; and wastefulness in dealing with it to-day means that our descendants will feel the exhaustion a generation or two before they otherwise would."
- In 1927, Calvin Coolidge noted in his speech under the heading "Petroleum Conservation", that "the National Government is undertaking to join in the formation of a cooperative committee of lawyers, engineers, and public officers, to consider what legislation by the States or by the Congress can be adopted for the preservation and conservation of our supply of petroleum."
- In 1928 Calvin Coolidge said again, "we have a conservation board working on our oil problem. This is of the utmost importance to the future well-being of our people in this age of oil-burning engines and the general application of gasoline to transportation." Herbert Hoover took up the cry in 1929.
- In 1952, Harry S. Truman said that "In the Middle East political tensions and the oil controversy in Iran are keeping the region in a turmoil."
- In 1974 Richard Nixon said "I can announce tonight that I have been assured, through my personal contacts with friendly leaders in the Middle Eastern area, that an urgent meeting will be called in the immediate future to discuss the lifting of the oil embargo." "If the embargo is lifted, this will ease the crisis, but it will not mean an end to the energy shortage in America..." "I urge again that the energy measures that I have proposed be made the first priority of this session of the Congress"
- In 1976 Gerald Ford said "Our dependence on foreign oil at high prices is still too great, draining jobs and dollars away from our own economy at the rate of $125 per year for every American."
- In 1977 Gerald Ford said: "I recently submitted to the Congress my proposals to reorganize the Federal energy structure and the hard choices which remain if we are serious about reducing our dependence upon foreign energy...I proposed to minimize environmental uncertainties affecting coal development, expand nuclear power generation, and create an energy independence authority to provide government financial assistance for vital energy programs..."
- In 1981 Jimmy Carter, who had urged citizens in his 1980 speech to "Conserve energy. Eliminate waste. Make 1980 indeed a year of energy conservation", said: "Our country is finally serious about the problems caused by our overdependence on foreign oil. Our progress should not be lost. We must rely on and encourage multiple forms of energy production--coal, crude oil, natural gas, solar, nuclear, synthetics--and energy conservation. The framework put in place over the last four years will enable us to do this."
- In 1982 Ronald Reagan said: "By deregulating oil we've come closer to achieving energy independence and helped bring down the cost of gasoline and heating fuel...." "When I took office, there were approximately 500 (categorical grant programs), costing nearly a hundred billion dollars--13 programs for energy, 36 for pollution control....Let's solve this problem with a single, bold stroke..."
- In 1989 George H.W. Bush noted that "In some cases, the gulfs and oceans off our shores hold the promise of oil and gas reserves which can make our nation more secure and less dependent on foreign oil".
- In 1993 a freshly elected wonkish Clinton proposed, "a broad-based tax on energy, and I want to tell you why I selected this and why I think it's a good idea. I recommend that we adopt a Btu tax on the heat content of energy as the best way to provide us with revenue to lower the deficit because it also combats pollution, promotes energy efficiency, promotes the independence, economically, of this country as well as helping to reduce the debt, and because it does not discriminate against any area. Unlike a carbon tax, that's not too hard on the coal States; unlike a gas tax, that's not too tough on people who drive a long way to work; unlike an ad valorem tax, it doesn't increase just when the price of an energy source goes up. And it is environmentally responsible. It will help us in the future as well as in the present with the deficit."
- In 1997, Clinton, slightly distracted, said, "We must build the second generation of the Internet so that our leading universities and national laboratories can communicate in speeds a thousand times faster than today to develop new medical treatments, new sources of energy..."
- In 1999, Clinton said: "Tonight, I propose a new clean air fund to help communities reduce greenhouse and other pollutions, and tax incentives and investment to spur clean energy technologies. And I want to work with members of Congress in both parties to reward companies that take early, voluntary action to reduce greenhouse gases.
So many promises. All of these words in all of these State of the Union speeches, have gotten us exactly where we are today. We consume oil, we consume particulate matter and toxic air. Don't worry about that smell, we're told, it's probably a swamp in New Jersey. These issues have garnered out nation's attention for a century and a quarter. Today foreign oil dependence and our habit of spewing spewing carbons into the environment remain on the agenda, featured in our presidents' speeches, each year another opportunity for an eloquent garnish. But here's what the progress looks like:
So forgive us for thinking today is yesterday, one day is another, that 2007 is last year, that the goals of three decades ago seem like today's, that last century's Middle East problem oozed crudely into this century's.
What should we do now? Stock up on frozen fruit? Wear a sweater? Or is it too warm for sweaters now? Maybe we should steel our resolve and prepare to grab on to a tree in case of a freak windstorm. Keep rowboats handy in case of rain. Should we support nuclear power, burn some coal cleanly, or wait for that "simple chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen...which can be used to power a car, producing only water...", that George W. Bush proposed in 2003? Someone will solve it right? In the mean time we can always jump in our cars and go shopping -- assert our right to our way of life. We can shop for air purifiers and inhalers as well as iPods. With a little faith and shopping we can believe that technology and diplomacy and will solve all these problems for us. We do. They told us so in the State of the Union address yesterday, and last century.
¹The text of all the State of the Union speeches was found at the State of The Union site http://stateoftheunion.onetwothree.net. My text selections are an imprecise representation, of course. In addition to searchable text of all the speeches, there are some potentially interesting tool/toys on the site.
²The graph in it's original form can be found at the Department of Energy site at http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/eh/frame.html