No matter how hard the White House tried to get to you to watch Tuesday night’s State of the Union message, President Barack Obama’s last, it’s likely you didn’t tune in. This isn’t Obama’s fault. The ratings have been declining for years. Small wonder, given our busy lives, our plentiful distractions and the seeming ubiquity these days of presidential appearances.
So one has to wonder: Is the State of the Union address even a good idea anymore? I’m not referring to the constitutional requirement, in Article II, Section 3, that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” That’s a great idea, just as it was in the Framers’ day. But presidents do it all the time. The flow of messages, formal and informal, between the White House and Capitol Hill is constant.
What’s tiresome is the hoopla about a speech that hardly anybody watches, and that, as a general rule, contains nothing new. The Framers, unable to imagine mass communication or even regular bookkeeping, supposed that the chief executive would deliver information about government operations that was not otherwise available. To pick at random an early example, President James Monroe’s 1820 State of the Union address brought the House and the Senate up to date on certain foreign negotiations and recited data on tax receipts and federal expenditures – data the Congress would have had trouble compiling in any other way. The brief letter was read aloud (but not by Monroe) to the assembled members, and 5,000 copies were printed “for the use of the members of this House.”
The executive’s duty to give Congress information on the state of the union was never meant to be a big deal. It receives only one brief mention in the Federalist Papers. So limited were the expectations of the Founding Generation about presidential communication that in 1801, a dispute broke out on the floor of the House of Representatives about whether it was even constitutionally correct to receive the written report from President Thomas Jefferson that presaged his attack on the federal courts as then existing. His defenders cited his responsibility to give the Congress information on the state of the union.
As we are reminded every year, the tradition that presidents should deliver their messages in person is less than a century old. George Washington and John Adams did indeed address the assembled members of Congress in person, but did not detain them long. Washington’s first State of the Union, in 1790, was under 1,085 words — a about the length of an oped article. By the time John Adams delivered his final message in 1800, the word count had inched up to 1,372. It’s said that speeches should be read at a pace of 150 words a minute. If the Founders followed the same rule, Adams spoke for about nine minutes.
According to the American Presidency Project, after Adams, no president delivered the State of the Union message in person until Woodrow Wilson in 1913. No student of U.S. history will be surprised that the reserved Calvin Coolidge abandoned the practice, sending along his last seven messages in writing. It’s similarly unsurprising that the ebullient Franklin Roosevelt revived it. After Roosevelt, the tradition of personal presidential appearances was firmly established. There were occasional exceptions — Richard Nixon made the innovative but strange decision in 1973 to deliver not one but six messages, all in writing.
From Ronald Reagan on, every president every year has chosen to deliver the State of the Union as a speech to a joint session of Congress. But I’m willing to bet that nobody can remember the last time that the message was one of the great speeches of a presidency. In fact, I’m willing to bet that few readers can remember the last time a State of the Union message told them anything they didn’t know.
The most memorable one in my lifetime was Nixon’s in January 1974. It was memorable, however, not because of what he talked about but because of what he didn’t. His presidency was crumbling around him. After the “Saturday Night Massacre” the previous October, when Nixon fired the top two officials of the Justice Department for refusing to fire the special prosecutor investigating Watergate, most people were sure the scandal would soon reach the Oval Office. In August 1974, Nixon would resign from office.
But that January night, as Nixon stood before the joint session of Congress, the nation cringed with embarrassment as the president gave an ordinary speech, pretending with all his craven might that there was not after all a bomb under the bed.
Presidents do give great and important speeches to the nation. They just don’t do it when fulfilling their constitutional duty to from time to time give the Congress information on the state of the union. The tradition of delivering the message by public address has long outlived its usefulness. So here’s a memo to whoever is elected in 2016: When January 2018 rolls around, deliver your State of the Union message the old-fashioned way. Send us a letter.
Stephen Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a law professor at Yale.
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