Once again tonight, Americans, or at least the always-declining number who think it worth their time, will tune in for the annual spectacle of the President’s State of the Union address. It’s worth taking a moment to remember that there was once a time when the whole practice was considered not just unseemly, but downright un-American.
Our first two Presidents– Washington and Adams– delivered a personal address to Congress much like today. But when Thomas Jefferson was elected, he declined, instead sending a written text that was read to Congress by a clerk.
It’s true Jefferson was a notoriously shy and quiet public speaker. The strength of his rhetoric lay in the written word, not his oratory. But that wasn’t his only reason: to Jefferson, the whole process smacked of the “speech from the throne” delivered annually by the British monarch.
Few sins were worse to Jefferson than appearing “monarchical.” It was, with some justification, the allegation he ran on against his old friend and colleague John Adams, becoming the first President to win by defeating an incumbent.
Jefferson’s modest republican sensibilities held sway for well over a century. Every President from him until William Howard Taft followed the same practice, and reporting “information on the state of the union” in the form of a written report.
Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson are to blame for the current State of the Union spectacle
It wasn’t until Woodrow Wilson that the practice of an in-person speech was revived. At the height of the Progressive Era, Wilson saw the speech as the perfect opportunity for the President to speak as vox populi, the Jacksonian tribune of the people.
Since then, the event has evolved into the spectacle we see today. Calvin Coolidge’s 1923 speech was the first to be broadcast on radio. Harry Truman’s 1947 speech was the first to be aired on television.
In 1967, Lyndon B. Johnson underscored the shift in the nature of the speech by moving it to the evening, during prime-time broadcasting hours. The intent was clear: the audience for the President’s speech is no longer really Congress, it’s the American people.
Ronald Reagan instituted the practice, now expected, of including notable American citizens in the audience for a shout-out during the speech. What was supposed to be an informational formality to keep the President and Congress on the same page, has become a glorified stump speech, that wouldn’t seem out of place at a campaign rally.
These technological changes might be far from anything Jefferson could have imagined, but the arc of the trajectory shows the wisdom of his concern. Instead of a humble chief magistrate of limited powers, the presidency has become as much about theater as policy, a reality taken to new heights by the current occupant of the office.
(Official White House Photo of President Donald Trump delivering his Joint Address to Congress at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., Tuesday February 28, 2017 by Shealah Craighead)