TOPICS > Politics

The State of the Union: History in the Making

January 22, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution requires the President from time to time to give to the Congress information of the State of the Union.

The idea was patterned after England, where the King or Queen addressed both Houses of Parliament at the start of each session, but at the first State of the Union George Washington cut any royal edge off the proceedings by wearing a suit of brown broadcloth made in Connecticut.

The third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, took the anti-royalist sentiment a step further and sent his address to Congress by letter. That tradition held and no President gave the State of the Union in person again until Woodrow Wilson in 1913.

In the interim, the messages were fairly routine, mostly devoted to relations between the United States and foreign nations, as well as various Indian people. The Presidents rarely inserted their own policy proposals, with a few exceptions.

President Jackson suggested there be two Supreme Courts, one for each side of the Appalachian Mountains, and in his second State of the Union Address, Abraham Lincoln proposed a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. Twentieth Century Presidents became much more activist in their State of the Union Addresses.

Theodore Roosevelt epitomized that transition, once clenching his fists and saying, “Sometimes I wish I could be President and Congress too.” In his messages, Roosevelt called for active federal regulation of industry, tougher anti-trust laws, and conservation of natural resources.

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: (1964) And this administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.

KWAME HOLMAN: In similar fashion, Lyndon Johnson used the State of the Union to present his Civil Rights and Great Society programs. Johnson also was the President who changed the time of the addresses from their traditional noon start to the evening so that prime time television would broadcast the speech. Television coverage enabled Presidents to speak to the nation, as well as the Congress, and established a modern tradition for State of the Union Addresses.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now to an examination of Presidential State of the Union Messages. It comes from three “NewsHour” regulars: Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, Journalist and author Haynes Johnson, and they’re joined tonight by former Reagan/Bush Cabinet Official and author William Bennett. Welcome, all of you. Doris, how important is a State of the Union Address historically?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, I think what it is, is a source of potential power for the President which only becomes real power if he does it right, if he’s got the enthusiasm, if he’s got something to say, if he presents some sense of the future, and it hasn’t been used very much as a real force of power.

And the interesting thing is it’s one of those moments when the President is in the well of the Congress. You see the Supreme Court come in; you see the Congressmen come in. You can’t help but feel emotional if you’re a citizen watching one of the few occasions when the whole government is together. A couple of times when Presidents used it brilliantly, Roosevelt presented his lend lease package in 1941 to a State of the Union.

And at the time, the majority sentiment was way against lend lease. And, in fact, when he delivered his State of the Union and called for lend lease, the Republicans didn’t clap at all. And Eleanor was so mad that they didn’t clap that she wrote a column the next day and said, they should have clapped; they should be Americans first and partisans last. And then the next day the Republicans yelled at her and said, who does she think she is, a queen, but two months later, the–after that State of the Union, lend lease passed. And as we saw on the beginning, Lyndon Johnson in 1965 presented his whole Great Society program in that simple address, and by the end of the year, it almost all was passed. That’s a wonderful story connected to that.

After it was over, he said to Jack Valenti, “Hey, who many applause did I get?”. And Valenti said, “Oh, Mr. President, you got 79 applause. It was amazing.” And he said, “You’re wrong, Valenti. I got 80. I was counting them.” So I think it depends on whether they use it right. Truman didn’t use it very well in his first time. Bush certainly didn’t use it well in 1992, but we can talk about that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think about that, Michael, how important do you think they are?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: I think it does a couple of other things too. You can change the national mood. 1961, Dwight Eisenhower leaving office, a few days before leaving office gave a speech saying the State of the Union is very good and also America is doing a very good job opposing the Soviet Union in the Cold War; we have a situation of predominance. John Kennedy comes in nine days after being inaugurated, gives exactly the opposite portrait.

The nation is in bad shape, and also we are in a state of crisis against the Soviet Union and the tide of events, he said, is running out, in every theater a potential war. That was something that was an enormous jolt to the national psyche. I think the other thing that the State of the Union Addresses tend to do is they help to change a President’s presentation of himself.

The best example in recent years has been Bill Clinton. You saw the first one in ’93, a President who was asking for the second largest tax increase in American history. Then the second one he asked for universal health care, threatening to veto bills that fell short of that. Then last year you heard a speech that was almost the speech of a Republican showing that he had really gotten the message of that very bad 1994 defeat. So when you’ve got a President who is to some extent changing his personality as he goes through the Presidency, as this one has been, I think that’s a very useful tool.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Haynes, do you think there are times when a State of the Union Address is more important than other times, war time for example.

HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: Oh, sure, and I think this one by the way tomorrow night is important, and they usually aren’t as a rule. I think the President’s right to send ’em up by letter in the old days, because if you read the actual addresses, they’re a laundry list of all kinds of things.

They aren’t speeches as such, but when it’s really an important moment in American History, as we have now a great division we just saw tonight between Sen. Daschle and Mr. Armey, really fundamental differences about the role of government, the purposes of the society, and in the times of real crises, I remember going up here to watch Nixon in his last State of the Union Message, you could feel in the room what Doris says about a vehicle, a vehicle, the whole country was watching, the chamber, and America is wrapped onto that scene.

The same was true of Lyndon Johnson when he was at the end of the Vietnam War. It was a very different period from the Lyndon Johnson if you had seen the scene at the end when–of his Presidency as opposed to that high moment of the Civil Rights period. Now we have Mr. Clinton who is voluble, as we know. He can speak too long, and the country will be watching him. This is his presidential address for his campaign, but more than that, there’s a lot of uneasiness, so there will be people chemically watching how well does he do, what does he say, how does he come over?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Bill Bennett, do you agree with Haynes that this is a time when the address is more important than usual?

WILLIAM BENNETT, Former Reagan/Bush Cabinet Office: Yeah. These are very important times in terms of presenting a point of view. But what makes it, I think, more important and perhaps more interesting is Bill Clinton, and we just saw a great divide between Armey and Daschle. We don’t really know which side Bill Clinton is on. I mean, I don’t think you know with Bill Clinton until he comes and shows up.

We might get the, the liberal President of the first two States of the Union, as Michael talked about, or we might get a President standing up tomorrow night saying, I’m for a balanced budget in seven years and I’m for reducing taxes, and I’m for reducing even capital gains taxes, all of which I think have recently become, some more recently than others, Bill Clinton’s positions. So with Bill Clinton, the State of the Union takes on an added kind of effect, which is who will he be tonight, which person will stand before us, and what will his view be?

What will be the guiding metaphor? And I’m sure we’ll have some metaphor will be rising and shining or we’ll be funking or we’ll be something. Whatever we will be, we will not be what I’d like to see in some State of the Union by some Republican or Democrat, which is, all right, we’re now 219 years old, we’re going to act like grown-ups, we’re going to talk about things in a straightforward way, but the setting, as has already been so well described here, is so glorious and intoxicating it must just lift people up into this kind of rhetoric and applause–

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: It’s one of those few moments when it’s almost like our kingly ceremony, where you can feel the pomp and the circumstances, and that’s an important piece. It melds us together as people. And that’s why if Presidents don’t use it well, they’ve really lost a chance.

I think the real challenge for Clinton that makes it hard is he has that majority Republicans there, so he can’t depend on the applause that the Democrats normally would have outnumbered the Republicans, but on the other hand, what I think he’s really got to talk about is the future, how are we going to get somewhere, and how am I going to make the Democrats more likely to bring us that future, without making the Republicans so angry that they sit on their hands; it’s a very difficult mine field that he’s walking through, more than other Presidents, when their own Congress could have been the majority.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is that kind of a rule of thumb, do you think, Michael, that you have to talk about the future, you have to be optimistic, or the best? Is there something that the best addresses have in common?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you have to be optimistic when you’re an incumbent President. Gerald Ford, for instance, came in in 1974. His first State of the Union was a few months after taking office in the wake of Watergate and at a time of great recession that he could at least argue was the result of the Nixon economic policies and not his, and so he was able to say the state of the union is not good. The other thing is that as much as it is helpful for a President to do that, oftentimes it is useful to a President to declare a period of crisis in the way that Kennedy did.

Jimmy Carter, for instance, in 1980, at the beginning of the campaign year, was in a period of very high inflation, Afghanistan had just been invaded, the United States was moving into a period of much more truculence toward the Soviet Union, so he had to show that he had gotten it, that he had changed from his first year in office when he was saying that Americans had traditionally had an inordinate fear of Communism.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Was he able to do that, do you think, in the State of the Union?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He was, although I think to some extent Americans remembered what he had done in 1977 and 1978, and when you got into the Fall of 1980, I think there were very few people who voted for Carter on the thought that this was someone who was going to be more of a Cold warrior certainly than Ronald Reagan.

HAYNES JOHNSON: We say we want good news and we want positive. Americans certainly do, but there’s also a time when you can speak to when the people are troubled, and this is the role for a leader. I mean, Churchill, we forget our own Presidents, we have nothing to offer but blood, tears, toil, and trouble, and we look back at one of the all-time great addresses, Franklin Roosevelt at his best, the war is going to get worse before it gets better, so there is an opportunity for a President or a leader to speak to the country in a way that you don’t normally have.

One other thing about this, people are going to be watching the Congress too. This is a very highly charged emotional time. And you remember, we’ve had jeers and cat calls from each side, unusually so in recent years, so that’s going to tell us too where the tone is going to go.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think people are paying more attention now, or less than in the past? Any feeling about that, any of you?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think one of the difficulties is that even 10 years ago if it were on all three networks and it was the only thing you could watch, more people are going to be watching the State of the Union.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: TV has made a difference, hasn’t it?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I think there’s no question when you can see the event it makes a difference, and that’s one of the problems, when Presidents go on too long, there’s impatience. That was Clinton’s great problem when he went on too long. In fact, it’s interesting when Lyndon Johnson was doing his first State of the Union, he remembered the first one he had ever heard, which was Harry Truman’s first State of the Union, which went on for 25,000 words, and Lyndon Johnson said he almost fell asleep, and so he was determined, he told all of his people, 3,000 words, that’s all I’m going to give, but it’s hard for them to be too short, because every cabinet member wants something from their department mentioned because it is an agenda for the future, although Clinton can’t easily make it an agenda because he doesn’t control the Congress, so this is going to be more philosophic, in my judgment. He can’t give out a laundry list. It doesn’t make sense.

HAYNES JOHNSON: It should be, don’t you think?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: It should be. He may–that may be a blessing in disguise for him.

WILLIAM BENNETT: I think it would be nice to do something between one of those horribly long speeches and a sound bite, something twenty-five/thirty minutes, so people can then move on, maybe thirty-five/forty minutes, but a little philosophy and maybe he could say what he truly believes about things, what things, what problems he sees in the country, what problems he thinks government can address and perhaps some problems that he thinks government can’t address. This might be his last State of the Union, some of us hope it is; others don’t, but he can use this opportunity to say, look, this is what I really think; I know I’ve confused some of you over the last few years, here, let me lay out what I really think and what the challenge is, because there is, it seems to me, a significant philosophical divide between the President and the man who will be sitting on his right shoulder. As you look at the camera–you got him between Gore or Gingrich–I mean Gingrich–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But it makes a big difference that it’s an election year, doesn’t it? That’s different because it’s an election year.

WILLIAM BENNETT: Yeah, and look–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell me about that.

WILLIAM BENNETT: Bill Clinton is a political figure. I think we all know that. The question some of us have is, is he anything more than a political figure, is he governed by anything other than political motives? This is a great opportunity, given the setting, given that it is among the most Presidential of settings, for him to present himself as a person of conviction, and let’s see what that is, but surely, this is the beginning of the ’96 campaign from his perspective, and it’ll be interesting to see what he has to say about themes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You think it makes a big difference that it is an election year, Doris?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, in 1992, when George Bush gave his State of the Union, and it was a very pedestrian State of the Union, people said in some ways he lost the campaign right then because he didn’t give a vision of where he thought the next Republican administration, if he were to win, should go, so I think Clinton is going to be judged that way, but the Republicans in the audience are going to be judged too. I think they all want to be comporting themselves with dignity tonight. I don’t think they want to look like attack dogs tonight because the people aren’t going to want that.


DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Tomorrow night, right. Exactly so.


MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: One other point, if I might come in, one thing that George Bush lacked by ’92 and really through ’92, as Doris has suggested, is he wasn’t terribly good in suggesting the kind of things programmatically he would do in a second term. That’s what we really missed from that speech; he was terrific as a chief of state, it was a wonderful unifying speech in that respect. And Bill Clinton, as in so many other ways with George Bush, is really his mirror image. What we’ve gotten in these speeches, and I think throughout the Clinton Presidency, has been a lot of programs, some of them changing, but we haven’t seen him in that role. This is the last time he will be seen as a real President and not a candidate, at least in this year.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The addresses can actually hurt a President, can’t they? They can actually do significant damage.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Oh, sure. You see things through television that you don’t see otherwise. I used to go up and sat always there in the chamber there to look down on it and I realized later it’s better to watch it through camera because that’s the way the American people are seeing it, and you see something in the face, you see something in the temperament that you really can’t quite possibly see unless you’re looking through the screen.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about the pomp and ceremony, has it always been sort of the way it is now? It’s very impressive to see everybody as you’ve said file in. Has it changed?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, it’s interesting, as we saw at the beginning, when Wilson first came back to give it in person after it hadn’t been done in person ever since Jefferson decided not to, he was really lambasted by the opposition, saying, who does he think he is, we didn’t want a king, we’ve created a President, because they saw that with that pomp and circumstance, no matter how badly the President does, he is still the President at that moment, he’s the last one in the room, the music plays, everyone stands up. You really have a feeling of his centrality, so that I think it does have that impact and is one of those few times when it does, and Presidents have got to use it. That’s why it’s an enormous loss.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you all for being with us.