TOPICS > Politics

Historical Views on the State of the Union Speech

January 29, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: President Bush will deliver his State of the Union message tonight at a time when public support for the president and for his party are at historic levels. According to a Washington Post poll, 83 percent of Americans approve of the way he is handling his job as President and 44 percent trust Congressional Republicans over Democrats to handle the nation’s biggest problems. History may provide a useful guide to what those numbers mean.

Here to take us on that walk are NewsHour regulars, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, journalist and author Haynes Johnson, and Roger Wilkins, professor of history at George Mason University, and presidential biographer Edmund Morris, author of Theodore Rex, the second volume in his planned trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt. Welcome, everybody.

GWEN IFILL: Haynes Johnson, what are the challenges for a wartime President delivering a State of the Union message?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, he’s got the greatest opportunity, because, particularly in the age of television, it presents the perfect stage. All America, all the world watches; the members of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Diplomatic Corps, to television, everybody is a part of this vehicle. So if you want to build support for your policies, this is the golden opportunity.

They don’t always rise to that, though. Lyndon Johnson talked about guns and butter, too, in Vietnam. Harry Truman had guns and butter, too, during Korea. And it may that be that powerful popularity that is so high now often may not lead. Lyndon Johnson was out a couple of years after he gave that guns and butter speech, so there’s a peril as well as an opportunity for our presidents.

GWEN IFILL: Doris, which presidents can you think of have used this opportunity well, especially in a time war or a time of national crisis?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think one of the most memorable ones was in 1941, when Roosevelt spoke. Even though we were not officially in the war at that point, Europe was engulfed in war, and he called upon the Congress and the country to support the Lend Lease program to help England. And during the fall before that State of the Union message, the majority of the country was still very uncertain about whether they wanted us to be involved in Europe’s war, and he thought the Lend Lease passage was absolutely central. As a result, in part of those words and that strong speech, later that spring, when it went before the Congress, it passed, and turned out to be of vital importance. I think that’s one of the most important ones.

It’s interesting to think back on 1991, when Mr. Bush Senior spoke to the country in the midst of the Gulf War. It wasn’t that he really needed to ask the country for anything, but the transition that he had to make is the same one that Mr. Bush has to make now, to be a leader not just of war, but a national leader on the economy as well.

And when he came before the country a year later, when the war was over, and all these expectations were built up about what would he do for the economy, and he himself said they’ve been built up so much that I think I should’ve had Barbara here to deliver for me so I could meet those expectations, he didn’t make that transformation. That’s the challenge, I think, for President Bush tonight. We’re still in the midst of the war. He’s popular as a war leader, but he has to become a national leader on the home front as well. And that’s a great opportunity for him. Everybody is looking tonight.

GWEN IFILL: Roger, are there presidents who have handled it well, better than others?

ROGER WILKINS: Well, I think Roosevelt was the master of everything. He turned radio into television with his Fireside Chats. The talk that Doris was talking about in 1941 was preceded by a Fireside Chat, which…he was rolled into the Map Room and he said, “I’m not going to make a Fireside Chat tonight. I’m going to talk about national security.” And he went on to talk about how Hitler hated democracies, and was the enemy of democracy.

Now, America was not ready to go into the war. But Roosevelt wants to help the democracy, so he sets it up, and then he uses a wonderful phrase, “We must become the arsenal of democracy.” He then goes into his State of the Union speech about a week later, and he talks about the world that we want to see when we get through. He called for an economic bill of rights for Americans. He talked about the four freedoms for the world, so that he set the context for the struggle that was just phenomenal. People could understand it.

GWEN IFILL: Edmund Morris, how do presidents use this unique opportunity, this incredible platform to help them in the long run?

EDMUND MORRIS: Well, the name ‘Roosevelt’ seems to be dropped with embarrassing frequency this evening. I would remind Mr. Wilkins there are other Roosevelts to talk about.

GWEN IFILL: Well, go for it, why don’t you?

EDMUND MORRIS: Theodore Roosevelt, in his time, faced challenges just as extreme as Mr. Bush has had to face. He became president through an act of terrorism, the assassination of President McKinley, and the American people were as traumatized by that assassination as indeed we were by the World Trade Center, exactly 100 years later.

And for the next few months, exactly as President Bush has had to do in the last few months, he had to reassure the American people, with his positivity and his personal force and the self-certainty that he seemed to exude, that all is right in the State of the United States, and that the president is strong, that our institutions are indestructible – even though they are permeable, being free institutions – and that after taking care of crisis to our securities, as President Bush has done, other challenges have to be faced. In TR’s case, and also in the case of President Bush tonight, the next big challenge is corporate regulation.

GWEN IFILL: Haynes, we are going to hear the phrase a lot tonight, “guns versus butter,” domestic priorities versus foreign policy priorities, democracy at a time of war and a time of economic recession. What have we seen about the way that presidents have been able to balance this out in the past?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, again, Edmund is right. We can pass around the name Roosevelt. It does resonate through our history, both Roosevelts, as a matter of fact. But the great phrase-making…Roger talked about the “arsenal of democracy” phrase, and it was Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, who talked about making that wonderful transition from “Dr. New Deal” to “Dr. Win-the-War.” And that was the way a president could position himself to summon the country to follow him in the next phase of the leadership.

GWEN IFILL: But the next phase, as you and Doris have mentioned, for some presidents have not turned out to be a successful phase. I guess I’m wondering have do presidents, how have presidents been able to build on this incredible platform, to take it to the next level successfully?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, Roosevelt was successful. Often presidents aren’t successful. After all, Harry Truman in Korea, that was an unpopular war. Lyndon was driven out by the war. George Bush, Sr., George Herbert Walker Bush, one year he was at 91 percent in the polls, and one year later, he was defeated. So this is treacherous terrain for a president. You’ve got to instill confidence, you’ve got to have a vision that says this is where I’m going to take the country, and people have to buy into it.

GWEN IFILL: Doris, I want to ask you this, and also Roger, because you both have worked in White Houses. How important is it to the White House to take a long historical look at how one presents a message like this, what priorities one puts in the speech, how one pulls it together?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I think there’s no question that the speechwriters go back and look at other speeches and other State of the Unions. In fact, I remember one time a funny column where the columnist was able to show similar phrases in about three different presidential State of the Unions, because you look back and you get that sense of history.

And I think that’s important for the country as well, to be able to see itself not just this moment in time, as if we’ve never been somewhere else before, but, for example, when Roosevelt would talk, he would talk not just about that moment in World War II, but to give us confidence and courage, he would talk about the pioneers going over the Rocky Mountains; George Washington at Valley Forge having the courage and the resolution to stay on; the industrialists getting us through the Industrial Revolution. We’ve done it before; we can do it again.

I think history provides something larger, a sense that the moment is not being lived alone, and a sense of the incredible ritual and pageantry of this country, and what it can bring in the future.


ROGER WILKINS: See, there was Doris working in the White House at the heights. When I was in the government, I was down in the grungies in the Justice Department, and there it’s really ugly, because you’re asked to provide material for the speech. Well, you want to get in that speech, so you write your stuff. You sell it to the Attorney General. You want his memo to include your things. And then you watch the speech, and somewhere buried down in the speech, there is one phrase that relates to your program. And you live…It’s like the old Descartes thing, “I mention, therefore I am.” (Laughter) And of course, you brandish that about as you go in your interagency fights to get your program moved ahead.

GWEN IFILL: So, Edmund Morris, assuming that these presidents all have an eye on how these speeches will be viewed in history, whether or not they are memorable, how do they balance out their different priorities, so that the speech says what he really wants it to say, not only for tonight, but for the ages?

EDMUND MORRIS: Well, back in Theodore Roosevelt’s time, what the president said was usually what a president wrote. TR wrote all his own speeches. And when it came to phrasemaking, I’ll put my Roosevelt against your Roosevelts any time. For example, one of the most potent phrases he came out with in 1902, when he started talking about the necessity for the government scrutinizing the workings of large corporations, was that the “malefactors of great wealth,” as he called them, “were going to have to submit to more publicity if they wanted to continue to prosper in the free enterprise system.”

He said in his first message to Congress — which was the equivalent in those days of the State of the Union now, exactly 100 years ago — that the public interest requires the government should have the right to inspect and examine the workings of great corporations.What you’ve been seeing with Enron’s secretive dealings in recent years is a casebook study in TR’s passionate belief that all great corporations should have the light to publicity shone upon their innermost work.

GWEN IFILL: You know, as you’re comparing today’s speech making and speech giving to Teddy Roosevelt’s days, you also have written famously about Ronald Reagan. How that does that compare?

EDMUND MORRIS: Ronald Reagan, you know, was a very good speechwriter. He wrote his own stuff for many years before he came to the White House, and during his first term, he still wrote consider numbers of speeches. For example, the Korean Airlines speech was drafted entirely by Ronald Reagan sitting on a damp beach towel in the White House solarium. He did not have the gift of epigram, though, as Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt both had. Reagan was an eloquent man, but most of his eloquence came in his delivery. His actual language was not particularly inspired.


ROGER WILKINS: Well, I wanted to see what the first State of the Union was like, so I went and consulted Douglas Southhall Freeman on George Washington’s speech on January 8, 1790, the first State of the Union. And it said that, “He presented himself with superlative care before the Senate.” And then he read a paper consisting mainly of a congratulatory paragraph on the present favorable prospects of our public affairs, and a series of unexciting proposals for common defense, protection of the frontiers, naturalization laws, uniform weights and measures, the grant of patents, the extension of the post, and the promotion of science and literature. But then, he was elected unanimously.

GWEN IFILL: That goes to show, Doris, the speeches weren’t always that great a pageant, were they?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, you know what’s so interesting is that George Washington and John Adams did deliver the State of the Union in person, but then, when Thomas Jefferson came long, he thought it was too much like the king, because the whole process was, in a certain sense, you know, the king and queen speaking to parliament. So he just sent a written message to the Congress, undid that whole idea of going up in person.

It really wasn’t revived until Woodrow Wilson, who decided to make a dramatic, bold thing by actually going in person, which of course gives it so much more pageantry and meaning. And he was accused at that time of reintroducing the kingship into the presidency. For a few presidents after Wilson, they went back to the annual message. But then, of course, old Franklin Roosevelt came back to actually delivering it in person. And television just makes that so much more powerful. You see those people together. There’s a feeling of electricity and meaning by everybody being in the same room that you could never get by a written message.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we started with Franklin Roosevelt, and we’re going to have to end with Franklin Roosevelt, because we’re all out of time. We have to retreat to our caves and actually watch the speech. Thank you all very much for joining us.