TV Gave Us the Modern State of the Union. Then It Killed It.

tags: State of the Union

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers, is a contributing editor at Politico Magazine. His most recent book is Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.

When he became president, Woodrow Wilson wanted to transform the office into a seat of activism, and he planned to start with a speech to Congress. For more than a hundred years, presidents had fulfilled their constitutional duty of reporting to Congress “from time to time” on the “State of the Union” by sending written messages to the Hill, where a clerk would read them, usually without event. (These bland missives, the British scholar and statesman James Bryce noted in an 1888 book, did not have “necessarily any more effect on Congress than an article in a prominent party newspaper.”) But while that modest influence may have suited the presidency of the 19th century—an office of relatively modest powers—Wilson, a brilliant political scientist, grasped that times, and politics, were changing. The president now had to assert himself more forcefully, as his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt had begun to do. So, to much fanfare, Wilson set out to win publicity for his domestic agenda by laying it out before Congress in person.

These are the origins of the modern State of the Union address—an annual event closely tied to the rise of an activist presidency that drew upon the broad mass of the public for its strength. Today, however, the ritual seems to be waning in importance, and its diminishing value seems symptomatic of our presidents’ difficulty, in an age of fracture and partisanship, in speaking to a unitary public.

Back in 1913, however, Wilson’s gambit worked. A policy speech to a joint session that April, coming weeks after his inauguration, thrilled the press and the public and helped make his first term one of the most productive ever in progressive domestic legislation. As the new president rode back to the White House afterward, his wife, Ellen, praised the stunt as one that Roosevelt might have attempted “if only he had thought of it.” Wilson laughed. “I think I put one over on Teddy.” Later, in December, when it came time to give his first official “annual message” (the speech was formally named the “State of the Union” only in 1947), he gave that one in the congressional chamber as well.

Wilson recognized that a powerful presidency rested on sustaining public support. Party allegiances were weakening, as news now mattered more than a newspaper’s editorial line; citizens were expected to make up their own minds about an issue. The new importance of public opinion thus required reaching out to the broad electorate through the new mass media. In Wilson’s case, this meant the newspapers, but in short order it would include broadcast media as well. In 1923, Calvin Coolidge, an unsung pioneer in the arts of publicity and communication, gave the first annual message on radio, a medium well-suited to his modest, restrained style. Reporters marveled that as many as a million listeners, some as far away as St. Louis, could tune in, and could even hear the rustling of the paper as he turned the pages of his speech. Television was in its infancy when Harry S. Truman brought cameras into the congressional chamber in 1947 for his State of the Union address, though most people still listened on radio—or, since it was delivered midday, read about it in the next day’s papers. 

In the postwar decades, amid widespread Cold War deference to presidential authority, television bolstered executive power. Dwight Eisenhower hired the first White House TV coach in Robert Montgomery, who taught him how to look relaxed and how to read from a prompter, John F. Kennedy famously pioneered live news conferences, and in 1965, Lyndon Johnson moved the State of the Union address to the evening—“prime time”—to command a larger audience and more press attentionto suit his ambitious Great Society agenda. By now, the address had become something like the Cecil B. DeMille cast-of-thousands production that we know in our own day, with policy ideas and budgets developed months before, a fleet of speechwriters and other aides tweaking the copy,and strategists weighing in on themes and dramatic touches. Not coincidentally, the Republicans in Congress the next year initiated the televised response—first given by Sen. Everett Dirksen and Rep. Gerald Ford—a perennially futile effort to compete with the wave of publicity that the president automatically receives. ...

Read entire article at Politico

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