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World & Nation

From word count to opposition responses — here’s how the State of the Union address has changed

Trump says State of the Union is a go
President Trump delivers his first State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on Jan. 30, 2018.
(Olivier Douliery / TNS)

Since 1790, when George Washington gave a brief speech to Congress on the condition of the country, presidents have issued an annual State of the Union message.

But for more than 100 years, the type of flap that occurred between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Trump over the use of the House chambers could not have happened. That’s because presidents from Thomas Jefferson to William Howard Taft sent written State of the Union messages to Congress, Jefferson beginning the practice because of his concern that appearing before the legislative bodies resembled the practice of British monarchs addressing the Parliament.

With small exceptions, the modern practice of delivering an annual oral message to a joint session of the House and Senate did not begin until 1934, when Franklin D. Roosevelt made his first of 11 annual appearances before Congress. As technology has evolved, the speech, given early in the year, has been delivered simultaneously to the American public via radio, television and webcasts.

The Constitution mandates that the president “shall from time to time” report to Congress on the state of the country and recommend “measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” But the parameters of the address remain open.

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As Trump prepares to deliver this year’s address on Tuesday, here are some facts and background about the State of the Union:

How are the speeches delivered?

Washington and John Adams delivered speeches, but Jefferson opted to submit a written message to Congress, a practice that continued until 1913 when Woodrow Wilson spoke before Congress, and continued to do so annually for the next five years. In 1919 and 1920, Wilson, for health reasons, did not address Congress. His successors, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, spoke to Congress for the next three years, but Coolidge and Herbert Hoover went back to written messages for the next nine years, setting the stage for FDR.

State of the Union: 15 historic moments »

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Over time, technology lent the address a new edge. Coolidge’s speech in 1923 was a radio broadcast. Harry S. Truman’s 1947 address was the first broadcast on television, and Lyndon B. Johnson delivered his 1965 speech in prime time to catch the most viewers. George W. Bush gave the first live webcast in 2002, and Barack Obama’s “enhanced broadcast” in 2013 included infographics, charts and statistics.

Social media have given the speech even more visibility. Trump’s address in 2018 sparked 4.5 million tweets, more than any other State of the Union address since Twitter began over a decade ago.

How long are the speeches?

Speeches averaged about 10,000 words during the 19th century and about half that in the late 20th century. At 1,089 words, Washington’s 1790 speech was the shortest. His speech was delivered in New York, and at the time was called an “Annual Message.” Jimmy Carter delivered the longest written address (accompanying his speech) – 33,667 words in 1981 – followed by Taft — 27,651 words in 1910. From 1966 to the present, Bill Clinton’s 2000 oral address took the longest to deliver, at nearly one hour and 29 minutes.

How do opposition leaders respond?

It has become customary for one or more opposition party leaders to issue a response to the address on major television networks. Republican Congressmen Everett Dirksen and Gerald Ford gave the first opposition rebuttal in a program that aired five days after Johnson’s 1966 address. Responses in English and Spanish to the same address have delivered different messages. In 2015, Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo’s Spanish-language response to Obama’s address encouraged immigration reform, while Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) did not touch on immigration in her English version.

Pushing back against the president can be nerve-racking. Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman felt anxious before delivering the response to Clinton’s speech in 1995. As he gave his address, she recalled, “I was standing there listening to it thinking, ‘He’s saying everything I’m going to say.’ He was being a moderate Republican to the extreme.”

Have any presidents not delivered a State of the Union?

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Only two have not – William Henry Harrison and James Garfield — because they died first.

Who are the president’s special guests?

Ronald Reagan began the practice of inviting individuals in order to honor them for singular achievements or to personify messages in the speech. In 1982, Reagan acknowledged Lenny Skutnik, a federal employee who jumped into the Potomac River to help rescue survivors of an Air Florida plane crash. In 2003, George W. Bush kept one of his guest seats vacant to symbolize the “empty place many Americans will always have at their tables and in their lives because of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001,” the White House said. Obama in 2013 invited more than two dozen Americans whose lives had been affected by gun violence. In 2018, Trump invited parents who had lost children in the United States to the Central American MS-13 gang, addressing in his speech how “open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities.”

Have there been any historical declarations?

In 1823, President Monroe introduced the “Monroe Doctrine” in his State of the Union, asserting American intolerance of further European interference in the Western Hemisphere. “It is only when our rights are invaded or seriously menaced that we resent injuries or make preparation for our defense,” he said in his speech. James K. Polk’s 1848 address confirmed news “of the abundance of gold” in California. And Johnson introduced the War on Poverty in 1964, stating that the then-current Congress should become known as the one “which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.”

Sources: The American Presidency Project, UC Santa Barbara; Congressional Research Service; House of Representatives: History, Art and Archives


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