The Wild, Weird History of the State of the Union

As Obama delivers his last State of the Union, a look back at how a mere memo became The Big Speech.
caro-lyndon-johnson-fe03-main-tease
Lyndon Johnson was the first president to deliver the State of the Union Address in prime time, transforming the event into the giant spectacle it has become. AP

The State of the Union address wasn’t always this way, the biggest annual event in politics, the one night where even broadcast networks clear their schedules of sitcoms and police procedurals for more than an hour to give the president a chance to speak directly to the country. Unbound by the tight timelines of Oval Office addresses, he can speak at length and he doesn’t have to beg the networks to carry his talk. That makes Obama’s every State of the Union, including this week’s final one from Obama, a huge deal, our one civic moment.

But for much of American history the State of the Union was a nonevent. The Constitution doesn’t say anything about the president giving a speech. Article II section 3 It only mandates that “He [no mention of women] shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures he shall judge necessary and expedient.” George Washington and John Adams chose to give speeches to Congress but Thomas Jefferson discontinued the tradition because he thought it was too monarch-like, partially because it was reminiscent of the annual address to Parliament by the king or queen of England and also because it just takes longer to speak than read. And so for most of American history the speech was just a written message sent to Congress.

It wasn’t until Woodrow Wilson, a presidential scholar in his own right, chose to revive the tradition of the address to Congress that it re-entered American politics. As an academic and former president of Princeton University, Wilson had believed in the power of Congress as the locus of government. But as he moved into politics, first as governor of New Jersey and then as president, he came to believe that political power really resided in the presidency and he made the speech for six years until he became too ill to deliver it. His Republican successors—Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover—sometimes delivered the speech in person and sometimes didn’t.

Franklin Roosevelt gave it every year, and so has every president in the years since. It had generally been known as the “President’s Address” but after FDR’s White House chose to give it more oomph it was called the State of the Union address.

Until 1964 the speech was delivered in the afternoon, which meant it wasn’t a live TV spectacle. Lyndon Johnson was the first to president to move the address to prime time making it the event we have now. This is when the opposing party, in LBJ’s time the Republicans, asked for equal time from the television networks to make a response. Back then, though, presidents often held evening press conferences which all the networks—there were really only three—carried. The State of the Union was a special moment for presidents but not as rare as it is now.

Since LBJ, presidents have used the address, held each winter, to offer a laundry list of proposals for the coming congressional session. They’ve also gone metaphor crazy especially when it comes to war. Johnson declared a war on poverty while Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, a war on crime, a war on pollution and a war on cancer. George W. Bush used the speech to tout his global war on terror.

The idea of special guests attending the address is fairly new. Ronald Reagan forged that tradition of bringing in some heroic American who he could name during the speech. Lenny Skutnick was a government worker who leapt from his car one winter’s day in 1982 after a passenger jet crashed into a bridge spanning the Potomac River in Washington. Skutnik dove into the ice waters pulling passengers to safety. Ever since, presidents have invited special guests to make one point or another.

Other traditions endure. The crazy TV cutaways like when Obama was discussing personal responsibility and the networks cut to disgraced Rep. Anthony Weiner. And, as Jon Stewart noted in 2003, a reference to Medicare let to a cutaway of a sleepy elderly couple. One tradition that’s died and unlikely to be continued? That came in 1994 when the wrong speech was loaded into Bill Clinton’s teleprompter. He ad libbed his way through an address when his real speech had taken months to prepare. And no State of the Union address is complete without the word strong. Every president has used the word since Reagan. Look for the same as Obama winds down his term.