State of the Union Trivia and Statistics

The longest, the shortest, the presidents who never delivered one ... and more.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

My colleague Ken Walsh has a nice history of the of the State of the Union address, looking at not only what tonight's speech can mean for Obama, but how this event--filled with pomp, circumstance, sound, fury, but little significance--developed. And I blogged earlier about some of my favorite behind the scenes moments from various past administrations, from LBJ grousing that his speechwriters had given him "50 pages of vomit" to Richard Nixon bemoaning how boring the speech could be (an opinion shared by Bush 41 speechwriter and bloleague Mary Kate Cary).

But here are some straight facts and figures to sate your need for State of the Union data, trivia, and other minutia.

The shortest state of the Union message in terms of word count was the first: George Washington's 1790 address weighed in at 1,089 words.

The longest in terms of words was Jimmy Carter's final message, in January 1981. A written document rather than a speech, the report was 33,667 words long.

The longest orally delivered speech (at least since they started tracking these things in 1966) was Bill Clinton's January 2000 address, which clocked in at 1 hour, 28 minutes and 49 seconds. Incredibly, that speech was only 7,452 words long, not nearly as long as his 1995 talk, in which he jammed 9,190 words into 1 hour, 24 minutes and 58 seconds. That '95 address, by the way, was the longest in terms of word count, delivered as a speech.

In the republic's early days, the House and Senate debated the president's message and sent formal replies back to him. That practice was eventually deemed too time-consuming and stopped. And while George Washington and John Adams gave their messages in the form of speeches, Thomas Jefferson stopped the practice. It wasn't until Woodrow Wilson in 1913 that the State of the Union speeches restarted. In all, 76 out of 220 such messages have been delivered by the president, in person.

Two presidents--William Henry Harrison and James Garfield--never delivered such a message to Congress. Both died in office before they were able to.

Silent Calvin Coolidge delivered the first State of the Union (though it was called an annual report until 1934 when FDR called it a "State of the Union" speech) that was broadcast over the radio, in 1923. Harry Truman's 1947 speech was the first broadcast on television. George W. Bush's 2002 address ("axis of evil") was the first livecast from the House's website.

Until the 1960s, these speeches were delivered around midday. It was Lyndon Johnson who first thought to take advantage of a larger prime time audience, in 1966. That in turn prompted Republicans to ask for chance to respond, starting the tradition of opposition party responses. That first was delivered by House Republican Leader Gerry Ford, who would eventually give his own State of the Union speeches. Last year, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal didn't fare as well. His speech was such a disaster that many wags compared him to 30 Rock's Kenneth the Page.

So is this Obama's first "State of the Union" or his second? Technically, it was his first. Last year's speech, in which he reported to Congress on the state of the union, was specifically touted as not being a "State of the Union" address. In that regard, he was following the lead of his predecessors. Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush all gave speeches to joint sessions of Congress shortly after taking office that were technically not "State of the Union" speeches.

For more I commend the invaluable American Presidency Project at UCSB, a 2006 Congressional Research Service report on the topic, and of course White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters, by yours truly.

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