As the nation has changed, so has the State of the Union speech

President Clinton gives a speech from a podium.

U.S. President Bill Clinton accepts the applause of members of Congress late 19 January on his arrival at the podium for his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. At left behind the president is US Vice President Al Gore and US Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-IL. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO Win MacNamee (Photo credit should read WIN MCNAMEE/AFP via Getty Images)

It has been called the biggest night of the year in Washington, D.C., and also the dullest night of the year on television. It can be a moment for history to be made, or an evening of familiar rhetoric and predictable posturing.

But the State of the Union speech is a red-letter occasion for every president and every member of Congress. It is the only time that they, and nearly all the cabinet and Supreme Court and Joint Chiefs of Staff all concentrate their collective star power in one room.

In the era of primetime coverage, the State of the Union offers a rare opportunity for a president to address — and for members to be seen by — a truly national television audience.

Every year people ask about the meaning of this event and its origins, and we can clear that up with a bit of history.

The Constitution says the president “shall from time to time give the Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

George Washington decided “time to time” should be roughly once a year, and through most of its life, the tradition was called the president’s “Annual Message” to Congress. The label “State of the Union” came into use with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s and became the more commonly used term for the event in the 1940s, when it was first shown on television.

In the mid-1960s, those broadcasts moved from daytime to primetime. What had been an insiders’ confab of largely ceremonial significance became appointment viewing for much of the country, greatly increasing its potential to drive political events.

Broadly speaking, there have been five phases in the evolution of the speech. The phases have differed in length and importance, and they tell us a lot about how our country has changed.

Founding Federalists: when the speeches were live before Congress in the 1790s)

President George Washington got the tradition going on Jan. 8, 1790 and delivered his remarks in person, standing up in the chamber reserved for the Senate in the Federal Hall in New York City. The first Congress met there, and Washington was living nearby, because the idea of building a capital city on the Potomac was still just an idea. A deal to do so would be worked out later that year and the cornerstone of the Capitol would be laid in September of 1793.

That very first Annual Message delivered to Congress was also the shortest. Washington, known as a man of few words, limited himself to fewer than 1,100 and got through them all in about 10 minutes. (There is no official record of whether he was interrupted by applause.)

The longest State of the Union was more than 33,000 words and came in written form only from President Jimmy Carter in 1981. President Bill Clinton’s personal record was 9,190 words in 1995 and took nearly an hour-and-a-half to deliver. Barack Obama and Donald Trump each averaged over an hour in presenting their State of the Union addresses.

But back at the beginning, Washington went before the first Congress when he had been in office for less than a year. The ink was scarcely dry on the new Constitution. In fact, North Carolina, had just that week agreed to ratify it and Rhode Island was still holding out. So, in delivering this first presidential report before the new Congress – laying out a little about his plans and expectations for their relationship — he thought it best to do it in person.

Though brief, the speech contained substance, such as Washington’s suggestions for “the promotion of science and literature.” Not long thereafter, Congress would enact legislation protecting patents and copyrights, although Washington’s notion of a “national university” did not get traction.

Somewhat more surprising, Washington returned to address both houses of Congress with an Annual Message seven more times, beginning in December of 1790 and stretching through his final year in office in 1796.

Biographers have suggested his intent was to model a chief executive who would be a citizen, deriving his power from his election, the antithesis of a monarch claiming a divine right to rule.

The Silent Era (when president’s didn’t deliver their speeches)

Washington’s vice president and then successor was John Adams, and he kept up the tradition of making his report to Congress in person.

But Adams was defeated in the election of 1800 by a coalition of political factions that was united mostly in its suspicion of the Federalists. Their champion was Thomas Jefferson, who soon announced he would make his report to the new Congress in writing and would not be standing up in the new Capitol building to deliver the speech himself.

Jefferson was always uncomfortable with the idea of federal power, and executive power in particular. He thought that a president proclaiming his policy preferences smacked of a “speech from the throne.” (It has also been noted that Jefferson was not a compelling speechmaker himself, and his speech on Inauguration Day had been considered lackluster.)

Being a founding father himself, author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had the stature to go his own way and break the custom set by his predecessors. So he sent his annual messages to Congress as written documents to the House and Senate.

Jefferson’s precedent in this regard would prove remarkably enduring. The nation’s fourth president, James Madison, a close friend of Jefferson’s, also chose send his annual messages to Congress in writing. And so with James Monroe and so on through every occupant of the White House for more than a century. Even such outsized personalities as Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt followed this model.

This is not to say the messages these presidents sent were inconsequential. Far from it. Lincoln, for one, included some of his most memorable lines in these messages. His second annual message, on Dec. 1, 1862, Lincoln made clear the central issue of the war: “… in giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free.”

But these presidential messages, however weighty, were not the occasion for public events. They reached only a tiny fraction of the general public. And one suspects they were not carefully studied by each and every member of Congress, given that they were unlikely to be asked anything about them.

Woodrow Wilson breaks out — and heads to the Capitol

In 1912, a deep schism in the dominant Republican Party allowed Woodrow Wilson, the scholarly former president of Princeton and governor of New Jersey, to be elected president. And Wilson had different ideas about the annual report to Congress, as he had about a great many other things.

Wilson came to the Capitol for a joint session in December when he had been in office about nine months.

The atmosphere was not entirely welcoming, as the revival of the Federalists’ tradition gave some members pause. One observer, Wilson’s secretary of agriculture, noted that the members “seemed a trifle nervous,” that some had a “sullen look” and “something of a chill pervaded the air.”

If the audience was not entirely warm, neither was the professor president, whom the same observer called “pale and tense.” In an apparent attempt to break the ice, Wilson unloaded the following sentence:

I am very glad to have this opportunity to address the two houses directly and to verify for myself the impression that the president of the United States is a person, not a mere department of our government, hailing Congress from some isolated island of jealous power, sending messages, not speaking naturally, and with his own voice, that he is a human being trying to cooperate with other human beings in a common service.

To this, Wilson added that “after this pleasant experience, I shall feel quite normal in all our dealings with one another.”

Wilson would return for another five rounds of such pronouncements, ending when he had a stroke in 1919 while barnstorming the country in support of a League of Nations after the First World War. Thereafter, his messages were conveyed to Congress in writing, and it is unclear how much of them he was able to write himself.

His successor, Warren G. Harding, delivered two addresses in person in 1921 and 1922 before dying suddenly in 1923. His vice president, Calvin Coolidge, stepped into the role and delivered his one in-person annual message to Congress just four months later that same year. It was carried on the fledgling medium called radio, a breakthrough for political communication that would lead to momentous things.

But Coolidge himself, who was elected in his own right in 1924, did not deliver another in-person address after 1923. His successor Herbert Hoover, also passed on the opportunity and sent his messages in writing. Coolidge and Hoover would be the last presidents to turn down the chance to appear in person and address their speech to the nation at large throughout an entire term.

Broadcasting finds its president

There is no question who first made radio the mainstay of presidential communications. Roosevelt began talking to the nation via his “fireside chats” in the month he first took office, March of 1933. Roosevelt’s mastery of this new form contributed immeasurably to his bond with the average citizen.

There were 31 chats in all between 1933 and 1944, each strategically timed to coincide with moments when Roosevelt needed to marshal and mobilize his public support.

But throughout the 1930s, Roosevelt was also using his annual messages to Congress to rally the public behind his New Deal programs. In January 1941, with the Second World War underway, he delivered to Congress what became known as the “Four Freedoms” speech. It concluded with “four essential human freedoms” for the world, ideals for the anti-Axis powers to protect and pursue (even though the U.S. had yet to enter the war).

The four were freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. They would later reappear in the Charter of the United Nations.

In 1944, Roosevelt had just returned from a wartime conference overseas in fragile health. He sent his annual message to Congress in writing and then read it aloud on the radio in the format and timeslot of his fireside chats. Having the speech on at night broadened the audience, as the live annual messages in the past had been delivered to Congress during afternoon sessions.

When Roosevelt died in April 1945, his vice president, Harry Truman, became president in the final months of the Second World War. He did not address a joint session until 1946, when he did it in writing. So by January of 1947, several years had passed since a president had delivered the address in person when Truman agreed to do so in person and on the nascent new gadget known as television.

Truman was a feisty bantam-style stump speaker who could be effective at rallies, but on TV he became stiff and self-conscious, as did many other political figures in his era. But here for the first time, audiences sitting at home could get a look at the chief executive and the Congress live and in the flesh. And while the event was held in the afternoon, the audiences were substantial. Conscious of their dependence on federal laws and licensing, broadcasters were willing to provide free air time. There was something in it for everyone.

If the burgeoning TV phenomenon was good for Truman, it was even better for his successors, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. “Ike” was the most recognized American hero of the Second World War but no spellbinding orator. Yet he had a kind of gruff charm in the role of national grandfather and played this to the hilt in his televised addresses.

Kennedy was as mediagenic as a film star and capable of oratory rarely equaled in American politics. A wordsmith himself, he had also the aid of excellent speechwriters such as Ted Sorenson, who insisted the words were Kennedy’s because he was the man presenting them. Better known for his inaugural address in 1961, Kennedy delivered three televised addresses to joint sessions but was assassinated shortly before he would have given his fourth.

Going to primetime: a template for future speech givers

Kennedy’s death elevated his vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, to the presidency, and Johnson took the tool of the televised message to Congress to a new level. Johnson persuaded congressional leaders to move the speech back to 9 p.m. Eastern time, allowing most of the country to tune in.

Since then, State of the Union speeches have become one of the biggest draws on TV. President Biden’s in March of 2022 drew more than 38 million viewers. But each of his four predecessors had drawn at least 45 million or more for their first comparable address. Each president’s first official State of the Union has tended to bring in the largest audience.

After winning a term in his own right in a landslide in November 1964, Johnson addressed the most heavily Democratic Congress since the heyday of FDR and the largest television audience to see the speech to that point in history.

He pitched the ideas that became the Voting Rights Act that year, he talked of programs that would soon be part of the language, such as Medicare and Medicaid. He envisioned a federal role in education far beyond what any predecessor had dared suggest. It was a redefining of the national policy agenda, that became known as “The Great Society.”

Never had a president laid out such an ambitious program in such detail on national TV in primetime. But the new standard he had set would be template for future presidents. In varying degrees, and with different policy goals, chief executives would challenge the Congress – and the country – to join them in remaking the government.

Clinton for all his prolixity was restrained in his proposals, especially after losing control of both chambers in the 1994 midterm elections. George W. Bush would use his State of the Union in 2003 to sell his vision of a democratic Iraq where U.S. soldiers would be “welcomed as liberators.” Obama tried to strike a balance between Johnson’s uplift and Clinton’s restraint, and Trump used his four addresses to Joint Sessions to shelve the insults and taunts and show himself as more “presidential.”

As different as they were from each other, all these presidents knew this one special speech could do far more than “give the Congress information of the State of the Union.”

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