Farewell Themes in the State of the Union

President Clinton delivers his final State of the Union address, Jan. 27, 2000. i

President Clinton delivers his final State of the Union address, Jan. 27, 2000. Stephen Jaffe/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Stephen Jaffe/AFP/Getty Images
President Clinton delivers his final State of the Union address, Jan. 27, 2000.

President Clinton delivers his final State of the Union address, Jan. 27, 2000.

Stephen Jaffe/AFP/Getty Images

Bush and State of the Union

About the State of the Union

The President "shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." — U.S. Constitution.

 

• The constitutionally mandated presidential address was formally known as the Annual Message from 1790 to 1934.

• Since 1947, it has generally been known as the State of the Union address.

• Until 1934, the Annual Message was delivered every December.

• Since 1934, the speech has been delivered every January or February.

• Some presidents have sent a written Annual Message or State of the Union address rather than delivering it in person.

• President Reagan's State of the Union address for 1986 was rescheduled because of the Challenger space shuttle disaster, which occurred earlier in the day.

• The first radio broadcast of the speech: President Coolidge, 1923.

• First TV broadcast of message: President Truman, 1947.

• First live webcast of the address: President George W. Bush, 2002.

• First HDTV broadcast of the speech: President George W. Bush, 2004.

• The longest State of the Union address: President Truman (1946), more than 25,000 words.

• The shortest: President Washington (1790), 833 words.

• Average length: 19th century was about 10,000 words; late 20th century, about 5,000 words.

• Most Messages/Addresses given: President Franklin Roosevelt, 12 (including 10 personal appearances before Congress).

• Fewest Messages/Addresses given: President Zachary Taylor, 1; President William Henry Harrison, 0; President James A. Garfield, 0.

 

Source: Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives

President Bush is set to deliver his last State of the Union address Monday night. Like Presidents Reagan and Clinton before him, it will mark the last such address of a two-term presidency.

"The State of the Union address is very much an address of the great themes of a presidency together with the moment that he's giving it," says Clark Judge, who helped write the final State of the Union address for Reagan, one of the masters at delivering them.

"This was the time, as it was with Eisenhower and as it was with Clinton after Reagan, of laying out an ... aggressive agenda for the year, moving for a big finish," Judge tells Steve Inskeep. "In all three cases, you have a speech about the future, not about the past."

Terry Edmonds was Clinton's chief speechwriter when he delivered his final State of the Union address in 2000. That speech had three major objectives, Edmonds says.

First, "because we had been in office for seven years, we wanted to reflect on the then and now, where we had come from since 1992 and how we got there," Edmonds says. The second goal was "to put forth proposals for the unfinished business of the coming year" — the solvency of Social Security and Medicare, prescription drug benefits and other issues. And lastly, Clinton "wanted to lay out some big challenges that the country was facing, not only in the coming year but in the next decade."

"State of the Unions are the most clunky product for speechwriters," Edmonds says, "because ... sometimes they turn into laundry lists of proposals or of things that the president wants to accomplish in the next year. And it's very hard to sort of give it a central theme.

"The problem is not so much how to frame it, but what to leave in and what to take out," Edmonds says.

The addresses were characterized not only by the need to include many proposals, but also by the style of the presidents delivering them, Judge says.

Clinton's final State of the Union included a "very long list of initiatives and he had an ambitious program for the last year," Judge says.

Reagan's address was "far more thematic," the speechwriter says. "But then President Reagan himself was far more thematic." Reagan's farewell themes included "freedom in the world," revival of the economy through free markets, and "strength of civil society," Judge says, "and you see that running all through that ... final address."

Edmonds says Clinton was "looking forward to some of the big challenges — health care and shoring up Social Security and Medicare and those things. And he knew we wouldn't be able to perhaps solve all those problems in the last year, but he wanted to at least set the marker ... get the country focused on it."

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