On this eve of President Clinton's State of the Union address Tuesday night some thoughts about the importance and impact of these annual speeches. The thoughts are those of NewsHour regulars.
JIM LEHRER: First some history, Doris. Take us through why we have State of the Union addresses and how it came about.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, as I understand it, the ritual originally derived from the idea that the king in Britain used to give at the opening of the parliament a statement from the throne. So when our first presidents came into office, George Washington and John Adams did the same thing; a statement from the presidential throne. But then when Thomas Jefferson came into office wanting to make a more Republican kind of president, rather than this kingly heritage, he said, oh, no, I'm not going to do this anymore; I'm just sending it up as a written message to be delivered by the clerk in a kind of monotone voice, so it took some of the drama away. And that's the way it continued through the rest of the 19th century until Woodrow Wilson came into the presidency. And he was determined somehow to break that wall that had developed between the president and the congress. So he decided if he went up as a human being on his own to the congress and delivered it in person, it would provide a dramatic mobilizing point.
There's a wonderful story. On his way up there, Mrs. Woodrow Wilson said to him, "I bet if Teddy Roosevelt would have thought of this, he would have loved it." And finally, Woodrow Wilson said, "Yeah. I finally outdid Teddy on one thing." So he's up there in person, and, indeed, he then introduced a series of bills to follow his State of the Union which in some ways was the beginning of the president being the legislator that he is today. And from then on, once he did it, the rest would have to do it. And it has become a rallying point for the president's agenda, for setting the direction for the country. Once radio and television comes in, it becomes even more dramatic because you see everybody sitting there. It's the only time where the whole government is in the same place; the Supreme Court files in, the congress, the president comes finally in, and everybody's on their feet. So it really has become a leadership potential that it didn't have at the beginning.
JIM LEHRER: And Michael, also as a matter of history, has it had an impact? Has it worked for these? Did it work for Woodrow Wilson and the other presidents to get- to do what--as Doris says--they set out to do?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: It's worked for most of them. And, you know, the interesting thing is that you can almost relate use of a State of the Union in a big way with strong presidents. Thomas Jefferson and then Woodrow Wilson in 1913 proposed a little thing called the Federal Reserve System. That's what he used that State of the Union--
JIM LEHRER: That's why he wanted to go up there and do that.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely, because he knew that that was a big weapon for a president who doesn't have many powers under the Constitution to be able to go into the well of the House and call on Congress to do something that's very important. And other presidents followed his lead. You see Franklin Roosevelt, particularly 1937, beginning a second term when he was a lame duck, felt his powers ebbing. He used that to announce much of the New Deal's social legislation he wanted to continue to have passed. Harry Truman first used the term "fair deal" in 1949 at a time when his power was thought to be ebbing; Lyndon Johnson in '65 announced a lot of the Great Society. So these are big opportunities for a president not only to announce a program but also take some risks, to say something that perhaps other politicians are not thinking, get the congress to follow along, and that's one way that a second term president particularly becomes a lot more powerful than otherwise he might be.
JIM LEHRER: Well, Bill, is the audience still the people in the congress, or is it now because of radio and television, as Doris was saying, is it now a public event? It's really talking over those folks to the rest of the people in the country.
WILLIAM KRISTOL, The Weekly Standard: Well, that's why I think Woodrow Wilson wanted to go to speak to congress, precisely to give himself a bully pulpit to speak to the country and to put some pressure on congress, and, of course, that's been intensified with modern communications. A political scientist named Jeffrey Toole has wrote a book called the "Rhetorical Presidency," and he makes the point that only in the modern--post Woodrow Wilson, post Teddy Roosevelt, post Woodrow Wilson presidency do you have the idea of the president using rhetoric to push public opinion, to move public opinion, to put pressure on congress.
19th century presidents didn't try to do that much. 20th century presidents have tried to do that. Bill Clinton is going to try to do it tomorrow night, and it's especially important I think when congress is controlled by the opposite party. Now you have the Republicans in congress setting the legislative agenda. They've scheduled the balanced budget amendment as the first big vote, not something Bill Clinton is for. If you're the president, how do you fight against a Republican congress? This is the one moment you speak to tens of millions of Americans; they watch you; there's a little bit of Republican response after the speech, but that doesn't compete in grandeur with the president speaking to the congress. It's really his chance to lay out his agenda.
JIM LEHRER: And the public is watching him speak to the Republican leadership at the same time.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: Right.
JIM LEHRER: Because they're, as Doris said, they're all there. What's the record--your examination of the record, Haynes, as to whether or not it has worked, particularly in recent times? Has the president said something and because of the State of the Union address something happened?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: No. I don't think so. I think really you go back to Lyndon Johnson, maybe the war on poverty, or the Great Society would be the last time I can think of. Reagan laid out his tax plans and so forth, bringing real particulars, and it worked, it got through. But it is really what we've all been saying. It's a spectacle. It's a Roman circus.
JIM LEHRER: It's a ritual, another ritual.
HAYNES JOHNSON: It's more than that in the sense it really is a Colosseum. You're looking down this pit. We all are participants at this moment, and you could see how the president's reacting. We're all sort of in the age of television, we're all voyeurs. We're a nation of voyeurs, and we watch our spectacles. And this is one you can see the president's face. Behind him will be Newt Gingrich. Now just those two pictures on the screen are probably going to be far more interesting than anything the president says. And you may see Trent Lott when the camera focuses in on him, you say, ah ha, there's the new majority leader, so the power. Will the Republicans stand up and jeer, as they did with Bill Clinton twice before? Probably not. Congress is now much more chastened. Their power is much more divisive, divided.
JIM LEHRER: When did they do that?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Two years ago. Sure. When the president gave his speech and he was a weakened president and they actually jeered him.
JIM LEHRER: Jeered him. That's right. That's right. That's an interesting--
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yeah. I mean, so I doubt that that will happen this time, but what it is, is a chance for the country, as Doris said at the beginning, when Michael--and we've all--Bill has echoed--this is the one time, the one time all of the government is together in our national living room, the television camera.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, what would you--can you cite something that--of historical importance that came about as the result of a State of the Union address?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think two things absolutely. The first one that I can think of is that in 1941, when Roosevelt went before the country for his State of the Union, he said right from the start, the state of this union is grim unless we can support England in its struggle against Germany, and then he asked for a major change in public opinion to support a lend-lease program. At the time of his State of the Union the country was isolationist, not wanting to help England in its problems. The Republicans did not clap a single clap in the middle of that speech they were so angry at him for doing this; they were still isolationists. Two months later, however, he had rallied public opinion to the point where the lend-lease vote came to the congress; it passed; and it passed not by a small margin; it passed big. And then suddenly the country was internationalist. And they were behind him on the war which means you should take a risk.
You shouldn't just be in there looking for applause. I mean, when Lyndon Johnson gave his Great Society speech in '65, that's another time when I think it made a difference. He called for a Voting Rights Act. He called for everything, for air purification, for water purification, ocean purification. It was an incredible speech, but the most amazing anecdote that comes out of that speech is the audience loved it. Even the Republicans knew that something was happening in the country at large, so they had to say it was eloquent. And Jack Valenti dutifully came up to Johnson afterward and said, Mr. President, they applauded you 79 times. Lyndon looks at him in an angry voice and says, no, sir, it was 80 times; I counted it while I was giving the speech. But that speech gave that agenda to the congress. He had the majority behind him, and it became the Great Society congress. Those are the only two examples, though, I think in the last thirty/forty years that you could absolutely see that impact right away.
JIM LEHRER: Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And the examples that Doris mentioned were during a period of strong presidents, the imperial presidency from the 1930's to the beginning of the 1990's, this was a time when Americans gave presidents a certain degree of influence just because they were ruling during this period. Now, here we are, 1997, in the period after the Cold War, after the strong presidency, as Bill mentioned, Bill Clinton does not have the congress. He's weak for a lot of other reasons. He's got very few weapons, so one weapon he has got tomorrow night is to give a speech that not only is well structured but, as I think as we're all saying, does break new ground in a way that shows him to be a president who's willing to take a couple of risks. That was not on display in 1995 and 1996, speeches that were largely influenced by Dick Morris, who told him to stick to things that were very popular with the American people. I think if he follows that kind of tactic tomorrow night, it's not the kind of thing that historians will like 30 years from now, and we can get back to that on this program 30 years from tomorrow night.
HAYNES JOHNSON: You may--
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But the other thing is that he will have lost a very big opportunity to bring himself a degree of power that he otherwise won't have.
JIM LEHRER: Degree of power, Bill, kid Kristol, do you think--do you think that that is--that that is a possibility tomorrow night?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: It's a possibility. I think lots of us in Washington think, oh, another State of the Union address, can't watch our favorite TV shows; it's going to be a boring laundry list. But it is the one time the president speaks to tens of millions of Americans. Now, I do think--I don't know if he has to be bold, but I think he should be clear about his agenda. The great danger of these speeches is that they are huge laundry lists of issues, and people don't remember them two days later. If Bill Clinton stands up tomorrow, even though he's a weakened president, even though the Republicans control congress, and says, look, I want these three things passed this year: campaign finance reform and family leave and whatever he says, and I'm going to fight for these, and here's why they're important, and I'm going to ask the American people to tell their congressmen that we need to make these--pass these laws, make these reforms, I think that could be pretty effective.
JIM LEHRER: And that could matter, Haynes.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes. It's the last chance for Bill Clinton, and in a funny way, second terms--we haven't had this for a Democratic president in 60 years, and this is his chance, the inaugural address didn't quite ring the bell, this is his last chance for the whole country--Bill--we've all said--we'll be watching. And if he, if he will take some risks--I don't know if he will or not--but this is the opportunity because after that, the clock runs very quickly in a second term. You're already getting into the off-year election and the lame duck sets in, you can't succeed yourself in office, so if he really wants to seize imagination of the country, this is the chance, the form, the vehicle. The stage is set. The curtain is open. We'll see.
JIM LEHRER: And this is different than all other of his--all other Clinton State of the Union speeches?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Oh, I think so, very much so. Jim, if you remember four years ago, of course, when he first spoke, there was this enthusiasm for the new president. I think two years and one year ago he seemed doomed, and now he has this one brief moment to start fresh as a new second-term president, rare in our Democratic history in 60 years, and so this is his shot.
JIM LEHRER: All right. We have to leave it there. Doris, gentlemen, thank you all very much.