This is the beginning of a new category that will be part of my blog menu, “I’ll Take Potpourri, Alex.” This section of the URL universe is a place where I can write about anything I want with a slant towards history. This section will concentrate on recent, current and possibly future events. Today’s topic is the State of the Union speech with a nod to President Barack Obama’s address February 12.
It’s a task every United States President accomplishes every year since George Washington presented his to congress in January 1790. Presidents George Washington and John Adams delivered their state of union speeches in person to Congress. President Thomas Jefferson disliked public speaking and thought giving a speech to congress came a little too close to the way British Monarch’s addressed the Parliament each year. Jefferson didn’t want to do anything that smacked of British ways plus he had a high-pitched speaking voice and a lisp that didn’t serve him well communicating before large audiences. He decided to give his state of the union address to congress in writing and have it read to congress by a clerk.
This practice was kept until President Woodrow Wilson delivered his state of the union speech in 1913. The practice of presenting the speech in written form through the years had the result of reducing the president’s influence in legislative matters. With radio, and later television, giving the President a new avenue for a bully pulpit reaching millions, delivering the speech in person made sense so that more influence could be exerted directly and indirectly through constituents. President Calvin Coolidge’s State of the Union address was the first to be broadcast by radio in 1923. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s address was the first to be aired on television in 1953. By the 1960s, the address was moved to prime time television.
Two recent presidents come to mind I believe thoroughly enjoyed giving the state of the union speech. They are Presidents Ronald Wilson Reagan and William Jefferson Clinton. They just seem to relish the whole spectacle and ritual of being announced, walking down the aisle, shaking hands, and standing before the whole Congressional branch, with representatives from the Judicial Branch and the Pentagon, and constituents in the balcony, knowing that they were the big dogs in that neighborhood. You could see it in their eyes—they loved it! Besides the election, it’s the Super Bowl and World Series all wrapped up in one event for the President. The address is his chance to be and look Presidential. The speech is his chance to form a consensus while outlining his legislative priorities he believes will make the United States a better nation.
I get a laugh out of the congressional audience camera close up, television cut-away reaction shot depending on which party is in power. Once the President presents an idea, one side might stand and applaud while the other sits stone-faced, looking like they heard a joke from a comedian that fell flat. It’s half of the drama of watching. Who will the TV cameras focus on while sitting there obstinate? I almost want to see the President act like a college professor or teacher and ask the person not applauding, “Hey there, yes Senator, why aren’t you getting with the program, join the team and come in for the big win.”
The sitting on the hands routine is what makes America unique. We can disagree impolitely, as in a bar fight, or politely, as in sitting and staring, refusing to acknowledge the brilliance of a statement when others around you are cheering wildly.