State of the Union hasn't always been a grand speech
In 1790 at the New York City Federal Hall, George Washington appeared before a joint session of Congress to deliver in person the first in the Constitutionally-mandated report on the State of the Union. Eleven years later, Thomas Jefferson discontinued the tradition of giving an annual speech to Congress.
The Constitution only requires that the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union"; there's no mandate that the update must be delivered verbally.
For Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the annual speech to Congress was a matter of toeing too intimately the monarchical ways of the Kingdom of Great Britain that members of the nascent American colonies had fought a revolution to escape, explained U.S. Senate Historian Don Ritchie.
"Jefferson didn't like the idea of the president going to Congress with a message; it sounded too much like the King going to Parliament," Ritchie said. It didn't help that Jefferson, while a famously gifted writer, "was not a great orator," he added.
Instead, Jefferson sent his annual message in print form to the meeting place of the House of Representatives, where a clerk would stand and recite the lengthy speech to the joint legislative body, continued Ritchie, standing in the current Capitol's Statuary Hall, which from 1807 to 1857 served as the House congressional chamber where State of the Union addresses were read. "Members would sort of yawn and wander out and read it in the papers, and not pay particular attention," Ritchie said.
With his first State of the Union in 1801, Jefferson attached a letter grieving the "inconvenient... mode" of appearing in person to make the address, and wrote that he desired to give Congress the "relief from the embarrassment of immediate answers on subjects not yet fully before them."
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But with the swearing-in of Woodrow Wilson in 1913 was born the "Wilsonian" modus operandi. A political scientist, Wilson saw the current State of the Union speech as "a missed opportunity for presidents," Ritchie said. Delivering the speech in person, Wilson thought, would "really rivet people's attention onto the issues that he wanted Congress to deal with."
Excluding Herbert Hoover, who was "not a very good public speaker," Ritchie said, every president since Wilson has continued on the tradition of delivering the annual message in person. The speech itself, accordingly, graduated from its "long and cumbersome" form to being saturated with attention-getting gimmicks.
Pressure for "dramatic proposals," Ritchie said, ushered in Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty" in 1962 and Richard Nixon's "Clean Water Act" in 1970. Ronald Reagan, an actor by trade who "understood dramatic moments," in 1982 inadvertently coined the term "Lenny Skutnik" as an epithet for notable guests invited by the president to the State of the Union address when in his speech he personally acknowledged Skutnik for his heroism following the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 earlier that month.
It's now standard practice for presidents to invite guests to sit with the first lady in the gallery "who represent something that [the president is] trying to promote, some issue that connects to their speech, somebody who has accomplished something, someone noteworthy," Ritchie said. Some of the names on President Obama's guest list for tonight include Apple CEO Tim Cook, newly minted Medal of Honor recipient Clinton Romesha and the parents of Hadiya Pentleton, the 15-year-old gun violence victim who was killed in Chicago last month one week after performing in several inauguration-related events.
Then there's the unscripted news that comes with the decision to do an event live and in-person: Heading up to deliver his first State of the Union speech in 1993, Bill Clinton "got up with his speech in front of him, and then looked at the Teleprompter, and realized that they had put the wrong speech on the Teleprompter," Ritchie said. "They quickly notified his staff, someone went running, found a laptop with the right speech in it, plugged it in, and a few minutes into the speech, he was able to deliver it."
But year after year, Ritchie said, presidents know that with the introduction of radio and television and, since the late 1990s, live web streams, "this is their one moment in their year that they can bring everybody together, and they can address not only the members of Congress and the Cabinet and the Supreme Court, but also the members of the public."
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