State of the Union Immortalize Some Leaders

Some of the most famous lines in presidential history have come out of the State of the Union address. NPR Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr takes a look back at the history of this speech.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Now, here's NPR's senior news analyst Daniel Schorr with an historical view of State of the Union addresses.

DANIEL SCHORR: From time-to-time, it says in Article II of the Constitution, the president shall give to Congress information of the state of the union. So in 1790, President George Washington addressed Congress in New York, which was the temporary capital. And so an institution was born, giving the president a megaphone to trumpet his accomplishments and proclaim his new objectives.

The message has evolved over the years. President Jefferson didn't like it to look like the British speech from the throne, and so he didn't appear in person. That became the tradition until 1913, when President Wilson returned to the practice of appearing in person before a joint session of Congress.

Some of the best remembered lines in history came from State of the Union addresses. It was where James Monroe spilled out what became known as a Monroe Doctrine, warning Europe to stay out his hemisphere. It was where Lincoln first proposed to emancipating the slaves. It was where Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed the four freedoms: freedom of speech and of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. It was where President Johnson talked of creating a great society and where he launched the war on poverty. And not to be forgotten, it was where the current President Bush denounced Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an axis of evil.

The delivery of the message changed with changing technology. Calvin Coolidge in 1923 was the first to broadcast a speech by radio and President Truman was first to do it on television. President Johnson was the first to deliver the address during a primetime evening hours instead of at noon. So now, President Bush, initiating his final year with his popularity on the low end, mindful of his legacy amid the war and hard times at home.

A lame-duck State of the Union address is a challenge to a speech writer at best. There's been no advance word of any abroad new initiatives in the Bush State of the Union. And with uncertainty no matter how far the economic downturn will go, it will be difficult to offer encouraging words about the economy.

But, as in the past, the shot in their arms will intone the president of the United States. The president will be well received by Vice President Dick Cheney and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the members will applaud, well, many of them, anyhow.

This is Daniel Schorr.

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