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The State Of The Union's History


In his State of the Union speech, President Trump made a few references to history. For the most part, he said this or that accomplishment was the best in history and that he would not repeat mistakes of the past. There is a history to the ritual of the speech itself. The first televised address came from Harry Truman in 1947.


HARRY TRUMAN: Let us have the will and the patience to do this job together. May the Lord strengthen us in our faith. May he give us wisdom to lead the peoples of the world in his ways of peace.


INSKEEP: The State of the Union was different then. President Truman gave it in the middle of the day with little of the pomp and ceremony that we have come to expect on television in prime time. So let's ask Cokie about the history of the State of the Union address. She answers your questions about how the government works.

Cokie Roberts, hi.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. Good to talk to you.

INSKEEP: Good to talk to you, as always. Let's get right to the questions. Here's the first one.

R.G. CRAVENS: This is Dr. R.G. Cravens from Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. As part of my introductory course in American government and politics, my students would like to know which president started the tradition of an annual address to Congress.


ROBERTS: That one's actually easy. It started with George Washington. He took the provision in the Constitution that says the president should from time to time give to Congress information on the state of the union and delivered the first one on January 8, 1790. John Adams continued it. But then Jefferson, who apparently did not like the sound of his own voice, started sending up written reports. That continued until Woodrow Wilson, who restarted the oral delivery in 1913. By the way, the first time the public could hear the voice on the radio was Calvin Coolidge in 1923.

INSKEEP: Here's another question about the history. Let's listen.

EARL ANDERSON: This is Earl Anderson from Spring Hill, Fla. How long has the opposing party been giving their response?


ROBERTS: Harry Truman gave that first televised address, but in 1965, Lyndon Johnson decided to capitalize on the TV audience by moving the speech to prime time. And realizing what an audience he would have, the Republican congressional leadership asked for equal time. Senator Everett Dirksen and Congressman Gerald Ford taped a response, but it wasn't shown live, Steve. Various outlets played it over the course of a few weeks. I have to tell you my personal view is it's basically a waste of time to give a response. But the opposition can't give up the idea of prime-time TV.

INSKEEP: Why is it a waste of time?

ROBERTS: Because the contrast is just too great. You have the pomp of the president in the hall of the House of Representatives, and then the response is some guy in a room with a teleprompter. And when they try to jazz it up, it gets worse, whether it's Michele Bachmann looking at the wrong camera, or Marco Rubio famously grabbing for water, or the year when Democrats had real people, several of whom talked about how Ronald Reagan had made their lives better.

INSKEEP: Ouch. OK, so the president has the advantage in stagecraft, but our next listener wants to know if there are times when presidents have messed up that advantage.

SHAWN GALLOWAY: This is Shawn Galloway from Lenexa, Kan. What has been one of the more significant aberrations in State of the Union history? Any delays, interruptions, near misses? Any president give theirs while fighting a nasty bout of food poisoning? Thanks.

ROBERTS: Well, I don't know about presidents being sick, but we do know Ronald Reagan delayed his speech in 1986 because it was scheduled for the day of the Challenger disaster. In one of Bill Clinton's speeches on health care, not the State of the Union, the teleprompter had the wrong speech. And the most ridiculed blooper was probably Richard Nixon just months before he was forced to resign saying discredited president instead of discredited present when talking about welfare.

INSKEEP: Awkward. Cokie, thanks very much.

ROBERTS: OK, Steve, good to talk to you.

INSKEEP: That's commentator Cokie Roberts. And you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by tweeting us with the hashtag #askCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.