12 Fun Facts on the State of the Union Address for the Obama Speech to Congress

Here's some interesting trivia, regardless of what we call the Obama speech.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

I know, I know President Obama isn't giving a "State of the Union" address this week; he's simply speaking to a joint session of Congress about the state of our Union. That's clear, right?

With that important distinction out of the way, here are some firsts and other bits of trivia about State of the Union speeches (or whatever we want to call them):

  • Actually, the speech was not always called the "State of the Union" and, for that matter, was not always a speech. Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution 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." George Washington and John Adams gave their reports in the form of speeches, but Thomas Jefferson, the third president, started a long tradition of presidents sending their reports up in written form. The next president who gave the annual report (not yet the "State of the Union," mind you) in person as a speech was Woodrow Wilson in December 1913. Six of his eight reports were delivered in person, with two written. Both of Warren Harding's were spoken, as was Calvin Coolidge's first. "Silent Cal" then lived up to his nickname, sending his final five reports as written messages. Herbert Hoover delivered his four in the same manner.

Franklin Roosevelt started the modern tradition by delivering his first report to Congress, in 1934, as a speech. It was the first such address titled the "State of the Union." It wasn't until 1947, however, that the name came into general usage.

  • Coolidge's 1923 address was the first broadcast over the radio; Harry Truman's 1947 State of the Union was the first broadcast on television; George W. Bush's 2002 speech was the first webcast from the House's website.
  • The longest State of the Union (or whatever we call it) by words: Jimmy Carter's 1981 address—which was also the last such written message—was an astounding 33,667 words. I guess Carter felt like he had to get four more years worth into his final message. Perspective: Remember the endless Clinton State of the Union speeches? His longest was 9,190 words—which also made it the longest delivered as a speech, at least in terms of words.
  • The shortest such speech in terms of words was the first: Washington's 1790 report to Congress, which he delivered to a joint session in New York City, was a mere 1,089 words. The picture of brevity.
  • The excellent American Presidency Project at U.C.-Santa Barbara has calculated how long these speeches have taken, since 1966 and conclude that the longest was—no surprise—Bill Clinton's 2000 address, at almost an hour and a half. Richard Nixon's 1972 speech was the shortest in that period, clocking in at 28 minutes and 35 seconds. (Nixon, as I recount in my book White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters, would grouse about the laundry list qualities of the State of the Union—"Why do we have to have all that dull stuff about agriculture and cesspools?"—hit on the idea in 1972 of giving a very short speech while submitting a 17,000+ word written version of the annual report.)
  • Lyndon Johnson was the first president who gave a prime time State of the Union address, in 1965—before that the speech had been delivered in the early afternoon. Republicans quickly grasped the importance of the change and in 1966 started the tradition of the opposition party delivering a televised response. That first was jointly delivered by Everett Dirksen, the Senate Republican leader, and Gerald Ford, the GOP House leader, who would of course go on to become president eight years later. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, delivering the response to Obama's speech, hopes to match Ford one day.
  • So is this a State of the Union address or not? From a 2006 Congressional Research Service report:

...the past four Presidents (Ronald Reagan in 1981, George H. W. Bush in 1989, William Clinton in 1993, and George W. Bush in 2001) have chosen not to give an official State of the Union Message the year they were first inaugurated, having just previously delivered a keynote inaugural address. In each instance their first speech to a joint session of Congress closely followed their inauguration, but was not officially categorized as a "State of the Union Message." One observer noted in 1993 that by not calling such an address "State of the Union," the president could present a more focused message, while still deriving "the benefits of a joint session; nothing competes with the pomp and circumstances of the evening...."

A State of the Union by another name, in other words, would sound as ... well, I'll let you fill in the blank.

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