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January 26, 2011

A Little History, A Little Commentary

Kevin E. Dayhoff

For political theatre, hardly anything beats the ritual of the State of the Union address. By now, political talking heads will have already analyzed and spun last night’s faux-Hollywood primetime extravagant soliloquy into something relatively unrecognizable for those of us who actually take the opportunity to watch it.


In the past I have often wondered why the TV networks that carry the speech have not negotiated a commercial break or two. One may only imagine, “This year’s primetime sermon from the hill has been brought to you by Carter's Little Liver Pills for the biliousness and headache due to constipation.”


Over the years, historians have bantered back-and-forth over the meaning and purpose of the State of the Union address with all the seriousness of a heart attack.


Some have suggested that the practice be abolished. Well, ah, there’s one problem with that idea. It’s like, actually, for real, in the Constitution; and for those who take our Founding Fathers’ words to actually be meaningful and relevant – and not a set of suggestions – the Constitution could be a stumbling block to abolishing the annual presidential event.


Check it out! You’ll find it in Article II, Section 3, of the Constitution, which mandates that "(t)he President shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."


For those who relish the history of the presidency, the State of the Union address is a great narrative study in the evolution of our nation.


Our first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, delivered their analysis of the progress of our great American experiment in democracy and the union of the states orally to Congress.


President Washington combined his Inaugural Address with his Annual Message on April 30, 1789, according to the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives.


The following year, President Washington rode in a carriage drawn by six horses on a cold January 8, 1790 morning, from his residence on Cherry Street in New York to Federal Hall, for a joint session of Congress to deliver a mere 833-word “Annual Message.”


Reuters has reported that President Barack Obama's first State of The Union, delivered January 27, 2010, ran one hour and 19 minutes. “He declared job creation his ‘No. 1 focus,’ though critics have accused him of spending most of his time on other priorities, like overhauling healthcare and Wall Street rules.”


The Clerk’s office reports that from 1790 to 1934, the State of The Union address was formerly known as the “Annual Message.” It was informally known as the State-of-The-Union address from 1942 to 1946.


Only since 1947 has the annual address “generally been known as the State of the Union address.”


The Clerk’s office also states that until 1934 “the Annual Message was delivered every December. Since 1934 the Annual Message or State of the Union address is delivered every January or February.”


One critic of the president’s annual message, Lewis Gould, wrote a number of years ago, for History News Network: “More like an acceptance speech at a national convention than a candid review of the nation's situation at the outset of a new year, the State of the Union has evolved into a semi-imperial speech from the throne. In the process, the event has lost most of its reason for taking place. Congress and the president have better things to do than to be part of these empty festivities.”


Those who disagree with Mr. Gould do not include President Thomas Jefferson. According to a history of the speech (found on the White House website a number of years ago), President Jefferson “thought Washington's oral presentation was too kingly for the new republic.


“Jefferson detailed his priorities in his first annual message in 1801 and sent copies of the written message to each house of Congress…


“The President's annual message … was not spoken by the President for the next 112 years. The message was often printed in full or as excerpts in newspapers for the American public to read.”


If you like to read such manuscripts, according to Mr. Gould, President “Theodore Roosevelt devoted thousands of words in his message to railroad regulation, immigration, copyright laws, criminal justice and the civil service, among other topics.”


It was not until 1913 that a president delivered the address to Congress in person. The White House website reported that “the first President to revive Washington's spoken precedent was Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Although controversial at the time, Wilson delivered his first annual message in person to both houses of Congress and outlined his legislative priorities…


“Calvin Coolidge's 1923 speech was the first annual message broadcast on radio…  Harry Truman, also set a precedent in 1947 when his State of the Union speech became the first to be broadcast on television.”


It seems that today, hardly a year passes in which the build-up for the address does not fail to include words such as “the most important speech ever.” Or, the president will “command the nation's attention for one of the most important speeches of his career.”


Of course, much of President Obama’s ever-supportive press pre-wrote a “news article” about his address to be released moments afterwards. The liberal media will report that it was his best; the most wonderferously-eloquent words of his career; one the best addresses ever delivered – or, it was the best speech ever delivered since the days of the Greek orations in Athens.


In anticipation of this momentous occasion, one may only wonder how many members of Congress may actually faint during the oratory.  Certainly many news networks will scour the nation looking for citizens who fainted – or rose up from their wheelchairs and walked again, after hearing the words of President Obama.


I’m just saying…


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