The Speech That Turns Mere Presidents Into Talk
New York Times, "Week in Review," February 2, 2003
"Every year, by law and by custom, we meet here to
consider the state of the union." The beginning of President
Bush's State of the Union speech echoed the phrases that
Ronald Reagan was fond of using in the exordiums to his
annual addresses: "In keeping with time-honored tradition";
"a constitutional duty as old as our republic itself."
Other presidents haven't usually bothered to make those
observations, which would hardly come as news to the
assembled legislators to whom the speech is ostensibly
addressed. But Mr. Reagan understood that the occasion was
really contrived for other ears &emdash; and that its
effectiveness as television would be all the greater if it
seemed to be a tradition that wasn't fashioned with the tube
"By law and by custom" &emdash; well, yes and no. The
Constitution says only that the president "shall from time
to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the
Union." And while Washington and Adams made annual addresses
to Congress, the practice lapsed with Jefferson, who
compared the address to a "speech from the throne," a
symptom of the Federalists' dangerous desire "to draw over
us . . . the forms of the British Government."
Jefferson's misgivings were still very much on people's
minds when Woodrow Wilson resurrected the annual address in
1913 &emdash; Senator John Sharp Williams, a Mississippi
Democrat, derided Wilson's speech as "a cheap and tawdry
imitation of the pomposities and cavalcadings of monarchial
Those criticisms weren't entirely stilled until after
World War II, as Congress came to accept the speech as a
presidential prerogative that should be received with
respectful civility. By 1956 the political scientist Richard
E. Neustadt could note "the almost total absence nowadays of
vocal criticism or surprise at annual presentations of the
State of the Union addresses have been broadcast since
Calvin Coolidge's 1923 speech was carried over the radio.
Harry S. Truman's 1947 speech was the first to be telecast.
Lyndon B. Johnson moved it to prime time in 1965.
But it was one thing to televise the speech and another
to turn it into a television show. The credit for that
transformation goes to Mr. Reagan, who signaled the new
order in 1982 when he pointed to the gallery to honor Lenny
Skutnik, the man who had dived into the icy Potomac to save
a woman after a plane crash.
That was the precedent for the bathetic "Skutnik moments"
that have punctuated the addresses ever since, as well as
for seeding the gallery with military leaders, foreign
dignitaries and ordinary citizens whose stories will
dramatize his message in human terms.
More important, the 1982 speech demonstrated Mr. Reagan's
realization that once the audience in the chamber was made a
visible participant in the occasion, television viewers
would settle into the familiar role they assume with every
other kind of television talk, from "Oprah" to "Firing Line"
to the local happy-talk news show &emdash; as the privileged
onlookers for whom the exchange is really being
The effects on the language of the speeches have been
dramatic. In 1956, Dwight D. Eisenhower described his
program in dry and unemotional language directed at the
"It is expected that more than $12 billion will be
expended in 1955 for the development of land, water and
other resources; control of floods, and navigation and
harbor improvements; construction of roads, schools and
municipal water supplies, and disposal of domestic and
After Mr. Reagan, there would be no more sentences like
that one. Now the president's object is to characterize his
program in stirring terms that make a coded appeal to his
own constituents, but that are vague enough to land with the
television audience and command a deferential reception by
the opposing party's members, who are obliged by the rules
of the genre to respect the pretense of a direct
It makes for a strange exercise, like a political Simon
Says, as the opposition tries to decide whether to respond
politely to the superficially bland appeals of the address
or more truculently to their coded messages.
"Instead of bureaucrats and trial lawyers and H.M.O.'s,
we must put doctors and nurses and patients back in charge
of American medicine."
Representatives Nancy Pelosi of California and Richard A.
Gephardt of Missouri could greet that line with a disdainful
look, recognizing the proposal to limit the legal
responsibilities of health care providers. But other
Democrats in less safe seats would as soon not have to
explain those niceties to their constituents or risk looking
sulky on television.
James Fallows, a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter,
observed once that the effectiveness of the State of the
Union speech has less to do with what the president says
than with the repeated applause in an impressive setting.
That's why the speech always raises the president's standing
in the polls. But the ceremony wouldn't be nearly so
effective if it actually appeared to be a made-for-TV event.
Hence the importance of those invocations of custom at the
beginning of Mr. Bush's and Mr. Reagan's addresses, which
suggest that the form and language of the speech are really
dictated by the president's traditional role.
Like Jefferson, viewers today may see in this dangerous
monarchial tendencies. But the British monarch's annual
speech from the throne makes an explicit reference to the
limits of the sovereign's power. It begins when the royal
usher knocks on the door of the House of Commons, which is
slammed in the official's face in a reminder that no
sovereign is permitted to enter the Commons.
The present-day State of the Union speech wouldn't have
any place for a ritual that seems so churlish (the term
comes from the Old English word for peasant).
The president delivering his address is not like a
monarch, whose dutifully respectful reception is conditioned
on the hard-won limitation of her temporal powers. He's
something much more commanding than that &emdash; the host
of his own television special &emdash; and refractory
subjects can display their disagreement only by sitting on