Past Presidents Made History In First Address To Congress Continuity of tradition and shared power is what ceremonies such as the address to Congress are all about. They start the process by which independent personalities become part of the government.
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Past Presidents Made History In First Address To Congress

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Past Presidents Made History In First Address To Congress

Past Presidents Made History In First Address To Congress

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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

When President Trump addresses Congress for the first time on Tuesday night, the Capitol will be filled with Washington's most powerful people all taking the measure of the man who has been made the most powerful of them all. It's a ritual that opens a new era.

(SOUNDBITE OF BERNHARD LAUBIN, HANNES LAUBIN, NORBERT SCHMITT, SIMON PRESTON AND WOLFGANG LAUBIN'S "MOURET: SINFONIES DE FANFARE IN D MAJOR - 1. RONDEAU")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Professor Ron - you know him as NPR's Ron Elving - has a bit of history to share.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Imagine yourself a rookie president entering the House Chamber for the first time. You shake hands as you make your way slowly to the speaker's rostrum. You turn and look out at all the leading figures of official Washington - the Cabinet, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff - all in one place and staring at you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONGRESS JOINT SESSION MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED VICE PRESIDENT #1: Members of the Congress...

UNIDENTIFIED VICE PRESIDENT #2: My colleagues of the Congress...

UNIDENTIFIED VICE PRESIDENT #1: ...I have the high privilege...

UNIDENTIFIED VICE PRESIDENT #3: And the distinct honor of presenting to you...

UNIDENTIFIED VICE PRESIDENT #2: ...The president of the United States.

(APPLAUSE)

ELVING: So it was for a 47-year-old first-term senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, who just eight years ago gave his first address to a joint session. He focused immediately on a national economy in free fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BARACK OBAMA: But while our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken - though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this - we will rebuild. We will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.

(APPLAUSE)

ELVING: Obama gave other speeches that were more famous, but this one was about getting down to business with Congress. George W. Bush did much the same at his first joint session in February 2001. Like his father, George H.W. Bush, the second President Bush came to office in good economic times. The federal budget was showing a surplus and there was no talk yet of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, Bush chose a theme of challenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GEORGE W. BUSH: Our generation must show courage in a time of blessing as our nation has always shown in times of crisis. And our courage, issue by issue, can gather to greatness and serve our country. This is the privilege and responsibility we share.

ELVING: Both the first and second President Bush had hard acts to follow. The first came in after Ronald Reagan, peerless speechmaker. The second followed Bill Clinton, whose first speech to Congress drew a record 67 million TV watchers in 1993.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BILL CLINTON: It is nice to have a fresh excuse for giving a long speech.

(APPLAUSE)

ELVING: Clinton also offered a preview of two of the major issues of his first term. He spoke of ending welfare as we know it and also of tackling the costs and gaps in the health care system.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

CLINTON: Our families will never be secure. Our businesses will never be strong. And our government will never again be fully solvent until we tackle the health care crisis. We must do it this year.

(APPLAUSE)

ELVING: A dozen years earlier, President Reagan had wowed both the chamber and the national TV audience with his first address to a joint session. It was February of 1981, and he was pitching the economic program that became his hallmark. But Reagan got a warm, bipartisan reception, including at an unexpected point late in his speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

RONALD REAGAN: I - I should've arranged to quit right there.

(LAUGHTER)

ELVING: There have been times when first addresses to Congress came at moments of national crisis. Gerald Ford made his in August of 1974, just three days after Richard Nixon had resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal. Ford, who had served in Congress for decades, told the members...

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GERALD FORD: I do not want a honeymoon with you. I want a good marriage.

(APPLAUSE)

ELVING: But surely, the most dramatic first address to Congress in the post-war era had to be that of Lyndon Johnson in November of 1963, just days after Jack Kennedy was assassinated.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

LYNDON B. JOHNSON: All I have, I would have given gladly not to be standing here today.

ELVING: Later in that speech, Johnson vowed to pursue the legacy he had inherited. JFK had once said, let us begin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JOHN F. KENNEDY: Let us begin. Today, in this moment of new resolve, I would say to all my fellow Americans, let us continue.

(APPLAUSE)

ELVING: Continuity of tradition and shared power is what ceremonies such as this address to Congress are all about. They start the process by which new chief executives become part of the government they once might have railed against.

Ron Elving, NPR News, Washington.

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