Wednesday, January 21, 2015

State Of The Union Education

No, I didn't waste my time watching barry's State of the Union address. It was obvious going in that it was just going to be a pile of warmed-over tripe: "Make the rich pay their fair share;" We need to invest more money in the middle class;" "Big corporations are making too much money and ruining the environment;" "Republicans are racists;" "The Tea Party is a terrorist organization;" "muslims are our friends" ... blah, blah, blah.

Instead, I did a little research on the origination and history of the SOTO address itself. We tend to assume that the State of the Union speech has always been what we see today. But it has in fact changed and evolved over the years, going all the way back to George Washington. (Sources for the following are here and here.)

In fact, the speech itself is not required, and for over a century took the form of a written report to Congress. It doesn't even have to be an annual affair. The exact wording in the Constitution (Article II, Section 3 ) says that the President shall "from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." Nothing in there about an annual speech.

Here's a few more fun facts.

George Washington Delivered the First State of the Union
The first official presidential speech before a joint session session of Congress was given by George Washington on January 8, 1790, in New York City. At the time, New York was the nation’s provisional capital.

For the first 12 years of the United States, Presidents George Washington and John Adams delivered the president's message much like today's presidents do — they traveled to Congress and gave an oral speech to them. (Throughout most of US history, what we now know of as the State of the Union address was called the president's annual message.)
Thomas Jefferson started a 112-year tradition of giving the message only in writing
But when Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, he decided to change things — and send only a written message rather than going to give a speech. Publicly, he said that such a change would take up less of the legislators' time, and prevent them from feeling pressured to come up with their own response. The spectacle of a president addressing Congress had also seemed to some Republicans "altogether too reminiscent of the monarch's speech from the throne at the opening of Parliament," wrote historian Daniel Walker Howe.
When Woodrow Wilson revived the in-person speech to Congress in 1913, Washington DC was astonished
For over a century, every president would follow Jefferson's example, and send only a written annual message to Congress. But a young political scientist by the name of Woodrow Wilson wasn't convinced. Wilson had long been interested in how presidential rhetoric could be more effectively used, and in 1889, Wilson wrote that Jefferson should never have made the switch, since an oral presidential message could have allowed a "more public and responsible interchange of opinion between the Executive and Congress."

When Wilson himself became president in 1913, he had the opportunity to put his ideas into action. As a special session of Congress was about to begin that April, Wilson decided that he'd address them personally to promote his agenda. "The announcement stunned official Washington," Robert Kraig wrote in a book on Wilson. Kraig writes that a contemporary press account portrayed Congress as "astonished," and that even members of Wilson's Cabinet were doubted the wisdom of the move.

But the speech — which technically wasn't an "annual message" — went over well, and press coverage was positive. So when the traditional time for Wilson's first message arrived in December, he delivered that as an in-person speech too. He'd deliver five more in-person annual messages, before reverting to written messages for his final two due to bad health. Presidents Coolidge and Hoover would revert to mostly written messages, but FDR would make an in-person — and nationally broadcast — speech the norm.
FDR Coined the Phrase, ‘State of the Union’
Prior to 1937, what is now called the State of the Union Address was referred to as “the President’s Annual Message to Congress.”

It was FDR who started giving the term "state of the union" increased prominence, particularly starting in January 1942, shortly after the US entrance into World War II. According to the House of Representatives clerk's office, FDR's speech then "began to be informally called the 'state of the Union' message/address." A few years later, President Truman officially named it the "State of the Union Address," and that name has stuck since.
Ronald Reagan started the practice of inviting special guests
In January 1982, a plane crashed into Washington, DC's 14th Street Bridge and fell into the Potomac River, killing 78 people. In the chaos, Congressional Budget Office employee Lenny Skutnik jumped into the river and helped rescue a passenger. So the Reagan Administration invited Skutnik to the State of the Union address two weeks later — where the president personally praised him for his heroism. Members of Congress gave him a standing ovation, as TV cameras panned over to Skutnik (one caption read: "Plane Crash Hero").

Reagan and future presidents would soon expand this practice to include not just heroes, but ordinary Americans whose stories (and faces) could help illustrate one of the speech's points. DC wags would soon dub these guests "Skutniks." In the words of reporter Jeff Greenfield, "A skutnik is a human prop, used by a speaker to make a political point."

The practice of inviting Skutniks has been enthusiastically embraced by the Obama administration. This year, 22 invited guests will attend the State of the Union speech — including an astronaut, a community college student, a small business owner, and a DREAMer.
Clinton Holds the Record for Longest Speech
Bill Clinton’s 2000 State of the Union address took 1 hour, 28 minutes and 49 seconds long to deliver, including gaps for applause, which is the longest such speech since they were measured in terms of time. By way of contrast, George W. Bush’s 2006 lasted 51 minutes including more than 60 interruptions for applause.

The record for the shortest speech in State of the Union history is held by George Washington, whose first was comprised of only 833 words. It is estimated that, at modern rates of speech delivery, between 115 and 175 words per minute, Washington’s speech would have lasted no more than seven minutes not counting time for applause.
Reagan’s 1986 Speech Was the Only SOTU to Be Postponed
President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 addressed was scheduled to be delivered on January 28, though tragedy intervened.

On the scheduled morning of the State of the Union, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven of its crew.

Reagan, speaking to the nation on television, chose instead to delay the State of the Union and discuss tragedy of the Challenger instead. The State of the Union was delivered a week later.
Technology and the SOTU
President Calvin Coolidge delivered the first address to be broadcast on radio in 1923. Twenty four years later, Harry Truman would become the first president to deliver his State of the Union to a televised audience in 1947.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson changed the time of the speech from mid-afternoon to 9 p.m. so as to better accommodate a live television audience. By the time President George W. Bush delivered his 2006 address, 41.7 million people would tune in to watch.

Fifty-five years after Truman, in 2002, George W. Bush would be the first president to make his State of the Union available live on the Internet.
Finally, if you think today's political speeches are bad, check out what has to be the most unintelligible SOTU line ever.
Thankfully, Benjamin Harrison delivered a written State of the Union to Congress, because everyone would laugh at him if he said this aloud.

"The state of the Union is known from day to day, and suggestions as to needed legislation find an earlier voice than that which speaks in these annual communications of the President to Congress."
That makes later speeches models of clarity.

As for the speech itself, it has devolved from a serious recital of issues and solutions to standard political claptrap. For example, this year obama will propose a wish list that he knows doesn't have a snowball's chance in Hell of passing, but that positions the democrats to campaign in 2016 as 'the party that wants to give something to everyone, but those mean old republicans won't let us.'

So much for serious measures to improve the State of the Union.


Anonymous said...

I watched Spongebob Squarepants instead, for 3 reasons. It was more entertaining, it was more educational, and it was more factual!

Old NFO said...

Had to watch, didn't win the pool on the number of I's used... sigh. At least your post is FACTUAL! :-)

CenTexTim said...

Anon - not to mention that Spongebob is better looking.

NFO - I took the over at 27...

Well Seasoned Fool said...

Once again I'm pleased with my decision to pull the cable.

CenTexTim said...

WSF - If you really wanted to, you could have seen the anointed one speak on regular broadcast TV...