A Brief History of the State of the Union Speech

President Bush delivers his fifth state of the union address Tuesday night. Alex Chadwick talks with NPR political editor Ken Rudin about some of the speeches made by presidents in the past, and how Bush's previous speeches rank among them.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. The State of the Union, President Bush will tell us tonight, is good. The State of the Union, as Democrats will respond, is not so good. In the long history of these Presidential addresses to Congress and the American people we've heard bold ideas and banal rhetoric.

CHADWICK: Throughout much of America's rich political history, NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin has been around to monitor these speeches. Ken joins us from Washington. Ken, welcome back to the program and take us through some State of the Union speeches. How many of them have been truly memorable do you think?

KEN RUDIN (NPR Political Editor): Well, Alex actually not that many. Most of them for various reasons are either a campaign speech or they get lost in the times of that year. Unlike an inaugural address, or a speech at a National Convention where people remember, you know, great phrases. I mean 1823 President Monroe introduced his, you know, foreign policy agenda, which became the Monroe Doctrine.

President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941, January of 1941, the world is at war, both the United States and the world are recovering from economic calamity and of course the United States is within a year of joining that war and President Roosevelt, in his State of the Union, basically mentioned the four freedoms: Freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship God in his own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Considered one of the greatest State of the Union speeches of all time.

President FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: That is no vision on a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

CHADWICK: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1941. I'm remembering a speech in 1998. This is President Clinton right after the Monica Lewinsky scandal had broken. And he's got to get up and give a State of the Union speech when you would think, even though he's President, this guy would not actually want to come out in public at the moment.

President BILL CLINTON: Now if we balance the budget for next year, it is projected that we'll then have a sizeable surplus in the years that immediately follow. What should we do with this projected surplus? I have a simple, four-word answer. Save Social Security first.

CHADWICK: Ken?

Mr. RUDIN: You know Alex what's so remarkable about that speech is that if you look at the newspaper headlines of every day in the past few days prior to the speech it was basically Clinton lied, White House intern Monica Lewinsky, will he resign, when will he resign. State of the Union addresses usually don't change much, the American opinion much, but President Clinton came away from that speech with higher ratings than ever; probably because he had directed the Presidency and not the scandal.

CHADWICK: How about Social Security? There he was save Social Security first. That was a big theme for President Bush last year. Hold on here he is.

President GEORGE BUSH: One of America's most important institutions, a symbol of the trust between generations is also in need of wise and effective reform. Social Security was a great moral success of the twentieth century and we must honor its great purposes in this new century.

CHADWICK: 1998 President Clinton, 2005 President Bush, they're both talking about saving Social Security, fortifying it and what's Mr. Bush going to be saying about Social Security this year?

Mr. RUDIN: Well you know something that was a lifetime ago even though it was last January, it was a lifetime ago. Last year President Bush emerged in triumph. He was re-elected with a majority of the vote. He talked about earning political capital and intending to use it and then he came also with this great major Social Security overhaul that's going to basically define his presidency, or at least the second term of his presidency and obviously nothing got done.

Relationships between the Republicans and Democrats in Congress probably at their lowest point ever and given the other things that have happened in the past year, the aftermath of the Katrina, the ethics scandal going on in Congress, and the continuing disheartening news about the War in Iraq and the situation in the Middle East, nothing is getting done. So again, you could have a State of the Union Address where you have these great flourishes about what you want to do and yet if Congress is not you know listening you're not going to get anything accomplished and that's where President Bush learned last year with Social Security overhaul.

CHADWICK: NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin. You can read his column Political Junky at our website NPR.org. Ken thanks for being on the show again.

RUDIN: Thanks, Alex.

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