“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
(The more things change, the more they stay the same.)
– Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
The State of the Union address began with George Washington. A quick look at his speech and you can see how history repeats itself.
On January 8, 1790, Washington spoke before Senators and Representatives at Federal Hall in New York City. In his speech, Washington addressed the most important issues of his day which ironically included immigration and national defense.
“To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace,” he said.
Not much has changed in 225 years.
The Constitution had declared that the president should from time to time report on the State of the Union to Congress. Washington’s address in New York, at the beginning of the New Year, was his interpretation of those words. The practice continued under John Adams.
The third president, Thomas Jefferson, broke the tradition by submitting his address in writing. Succeeding presidents would follow this pattern until Woodrow Wilson resurrected the Washington tradition with his address before a joint session of Congress in 1913.
Great moments in State of the Union speeches?
December 2, 1823, President James Monroe enunciated what is now known as “the Monroe Doctrine,” one of America’s most enduring foreign policy positions. It promised that we would not intervene in European political matters and warned that no European power should colonize or further involve itself in political matters in the Western Hemisphere.
December 1, 1862, only three months after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln published his State of the Union address. He dramatically confronted the moral issue of slavery.
“We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
January 6, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had already delivered his most famous speech, referring to the attack on Pearl Harbor as, “a day which shall live in infamy,” yet his State of the Union address, which followed a month later, was more deeply philosophical and gave the nation purpose as it faced the long road of war ahead.
Some of the more notable goofs?
December 2, 1913. Woodrow Wilson proved that presidents are not prescient. “The country, I am thankful to say, is at peace with all the world, and many happy manifestations multiply about us of a growing cordiality and sense of community of interest among the nations, foreshadowing an age of settled peace and good will.” A few months later the world was plunged into the slaughter of the First World War.
January 25, 2011. President George W. Bush, anxious to justify a war against Iraq, announced alleged secret information that later proved false. “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
The future of State of the Union addresses.
The State of the Union address has lost much of its original meaning. It has evolved from a report to Congress into a public relations stunt. Nothing illustrates this more than President Obama’s “facts” from his last address.
“Over the past five years,” the president declared, “our businesses have created more than 11 million new jobs.”
What was left for the rest of us to unscramble was that he was counting jobs from February, 2010, a low point that was actually reached deep into his own term as president. Also carefully avoided by choice of words was the fact that the federal and state governments had cut 500,000 jobs during the same period. Thus it was not total jobs but only jobs that “businesses” had created.
Originally, the State of the Union reflected the state of mind or our chief executive. But today a president is much too busy to actually write his own speech. In an age of specialization one cannot be a great politician and a great wordsmith at the same time.
I offer that observation advisedly for I have not only been a student of presidential history, I have sometimes had a front row seat, having served on senior staff in the White House.
A State of the Union speech begins with a president sitting down with speechwriters and outlining what he wants. It is eventually shopped all over the White House where it is parsed and edited based on foreign policy issues, legal issues, intergovernmental issues, legislative issues, coalitions needs. What will the Chinese think? What will the Washington Post say?
Like all traditions in history, this one is organic and changing. And yet one only need to read the first address by George Washington to see how much is still the same.