State of the Union Trivia and History

The first State of the Union address wasn't called a "State of the Union address."

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The identity of the first president to deliver a State of the Union address before Congress probably won’t surprise anyone—George Washington. But readers might be interested to learn that the first president to deliver a speech known as a “State of the Union address” was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Read on for an explanation of those and other firsts, and other bits of trivia and history of the State of the Union address.

[Read Robert Schlesinger: Scenes From Writing the State of the Union.]

First State of the Union speech. Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution mandates 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.” So it’s no surprise that George Washington delivered the first such address, before a joint session of Congress in New York on January 8, 1790.

Shortest speech. Washington’s first State of the Union was the shortest (by word count), at 1,089 words.

Speech versus written message. Washington and his successor, John Adams, delivered their annual messages to Congress in person. Thomas Jefferson thought that a president lecturing Congress was too “kingly” (like the British “speech from the throne”) and so he opted for annual written messages instead of orally delivered ones. So did the next dozen presidents, until Woodrow Wilson restarted the tradition of orally delivered speeches. The notion of the State of the Union as a speech being the standard didn’t take hold until FDR, however. Over all, 78 out of 222 such annual messages have been delivered in person. [Check out political cartoons about Barack Obama.]

No message at all. Two presidents—William Henry Harrison (1841) and James Garfield (1881) didn’t live long enough to actually deliver an annual message of any sort.

First broadcast on radio. Silent Calvin Coolidge in 1923.

First “State of the Union” speech. Roosevelt was the first president to refer to the speech as a “State of the Union” address, in 1934. That title didn’t really start to stick until Harry Truman’s 1947 edition. Speaking of…

First broadcast on television. Truman’s 1947 speech was the first broadcast on television.

First double play. In 1961, John F. Kennedy gave his State of the Union on January 30; then hegave a special “second” message on May 25. It was in the latter message that he announced his intention to put a man on the Moon by decade’s end.

First prime time State of the Union. For his 1966 address, Lyndon Johnson decided to give the speech in prime time rather than during the day, as had been the custom. He realized he would get a much better audience at night. This also gave rise to …

First opposition party response. With LBJ going in prime time in 1966, congressional Republicans demanded the opportunity to give an official response. That year it was delivered by their House leader, Gerald Ford, and their Senate leader, Everett Dirksen. It would be the first of seven times the opposition response was delivered by a future president or vice president (Ford in 1966 and 1967, Ford and Rep. George Bush of Texas--among others--in 1968, Rep. Al Gore, among others, in 1982, Joe Biden, among others, in 1983 and 1984, and Bill Clinton, among others, in 1985). This year’s response will be delivered by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, whom many Republicans will probably was a possible future president.

[See political cartoons about the 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls.]

Longest message. Outgoing President Jimmy Carter produced the longest annual message, at a ponderous 33,667 words. Thankfully it was a written, not oral message.

Longest spoken message, in words. Is anyone surprised to hear it’s Bill Clinton? His 1995 address weighed in at 9,190 words. But even that wasn’t the…

Longest spoken message, in minutes. Clinton’s 2000 State of the Union speech, at 1:28:49 was actually longer than the ’95 address (1:24:58), even if the text was shorter (at a mere 7,452 words only his third longest State of the Union).

First livecast on the House Website. George W. Bush’s 2002 speech (“axis of evil”).

First broadcast in high definition. Bush’s 2004 speech.

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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  • Enjoy political cartoons about the 2012 GOP presidential field.