Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Presidential Speechwriters’ Perspectives on the SOTU

Terry Edmonds (Clinton speechwriter), Lee Huebner (Nixon and Ford speechwriter), and Clark Judge (Reagan and Bush speechwriter)

A speech is part theater and part political declaration; it is a personal communication between a leader and his people: it is art, and all art is a paradox, being at once a thing of great power and great delicacy.

-Peggy Noonan, Former Speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, from What I Saw

On February 12, President Obama will deliver the annual State of the Union (SOTU) address to a joint session of Congress. What distinguishes the SOTU from other presidential speeches is that it is the only constitutionally mandated speech. This post offers historical perspective on the SOTU based on insights from former speechwriters for presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and William Jefferson Clinton.

The State of the Union was transformed with the onset of the television age. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson moved the SOTU from midday to evening in order to attract a larger television audience. Indeed, tens of millions of Americans (roughly 30% of households with television) are expected to tune in to watch the address. But televising the speech has meant that presidents are more limited in what they can say. Televised State of the Union addresses delivered from Dwight D. Eisenhower to present have ranged from 3,500 to 9,200 words. One way that Richard Nixon dealt with this limitation was to limit what he said about foreign policy and draft a separate “State of the World message.” In 1970, for example, Nixon gave only a broad outline of his foreign policy in the SOTU, but on February 18 of that same year, he transmitted the “First Annual Report to Congress on United States Foreign Policy for the 1970s.”

According to Lee Huebner, speechwriter for Richard Nixon (and corroborated by the National Archives), it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who popularized the term “State of the Union” in 1935. From 1790 to 1934, it was simply called the “Annual Message.” Even though the most memorable speeches tend to be short, like Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the SOTU has essentially become a laundry list of wide-ranging policies on the president’s agenda for the year.

So what purpose does the SOTU fulfill? The answer tends to vary by president.

This Day in History: Warren G. Harding Installs Radio in White House

In 1921, President Warren Harding spoke into a recording apparatus to create a phonographic copy of one of his speeches.

In 1921, President Warren Harding spoke into a recording apparatus to create a phonographic copy of one of his speeches. PD.

On this day in 1922, President Warren G. Harding had a radio installed in the White House. On June 14 of the same year, Harding became the first president to have his voice transmitted to the American public by radio. Although President Harding’s address was not radio-specific (Calvin Coolidge was the first to deliver a presidential address on radio in 1923), the broadcast of Harding’s speech dedicating a memorial site for Francis Scott Key heralded a revolutionary shift in how presidents addressed the American public.

Check out the Miller Center’s Warren G. Harding Speech Exhibit, which features 14 audio excerpts of speeches given by Harding before 1922. The audio clips were recorded from 1917 until 1921 during three stages in Harding’s career—as a U.S. Senator from Ohio, as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate, and finally as President of the United States. The recorded collection was first assembled by President Harding’s nephew, Dr. George T. Harding III.

Madeleine Albright Offers Insights and Advice to Student Leaders

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright addresses student leaders in a session at the Miller Center.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright addresses student leaders in a session at the Miller Center, February 4, 2013. Photo by Amber Lautigar Reichert.

On Monday, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright addressed a packed Miller Center Forum. Earlier in the afternoon, she was generous with her time and met with more than 50 students from politics, history, and other classes taught by Miller Center faculty and from the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. She was pleased to see such a multi-disciplinary gathering, and remarked on the importance of aspiring leaders to have such a wide and diverse background of study. Today, we bring you some highlights from her exchange with the students.

Albright began by noting that we are living in a very complicated time in which there are more forces that are less and less controllable and don’t lend themselves to the tools of statecraft that we possess. The tools of statecraft that we possess – aid, trade, sanctions, threat of force, force, etc. – work in relations between states. But now we are dealing with non-state actors and they are both difficult and bring different forms of war.

In a book she prepared for the president in 2008, she argued that there are five big umbrella issues the U.S. must effectively deal with:

  1. fighting terrorism without creating more terrorists. She noted that the death of Osama bin Laden was important, but we have to address the root causes of terrorism, including poverty, alienation and the remnants of colonialism.
  2. the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
  3. addressing the growing gap between the rich and poor
  4. energy, environment and climate change, and
  5. restoring the good name of democracy.

Today, she would add a sixth issue to that list – the global financial crisis.

The use of drones presents a tough challenge. Albright posited that they are are effective, but the decision making around their use is cloudy and this presents problems. Another significant challenge the United States and world faces is cyber war. For example, can a cyber attack trigger NATO’s Article V protection of collective defense? How do we retaliate in case of an attack? Should cyber attacks be included as a tool of statecraft?

This Day in History: Happy Birthday, Gipper

Head Shot of President Reagan during a meeting with members of Congress, 1983.

Head Shot of President Reagan during a meeting with members of Congress, 1983. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, PD.

On this day in 1911, Ronald Wilson Reagan (a.k.a. “Dutch,” “The Gipper,” “The Great Communicator”) was born in Tampico, IL. Check out the Miller Center’s resources on the Reagan Presidency:

  • The Ronald Reagan Oral History project includes some forty-five interviews with those most closely involved in Reagan’s political career, including Cabinet members, White House staff, and campaign advisors. Among those interviewed are Richard Allen, Frank Carlucci, James Miller, George Shultz, William Webster, and Caspar Weinberger.
  • Listen to and watch some of the most important speeches delivered by President Reagan.
  • Read in-depth essays on Reagan’s presidency.

Why the Obama Administration Has Issued Fewer Signing Statements

President Barack Obama signs into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 as Vice President Joe Biden looks on.

President Barack Obama signs into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, for which he issued one of 22 signing statements during his first term in office. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, PD.

In light of the festivities surrounding President Obama’s second inauguration a few weeks ago, I have found myself thinking a lot about unilateral power during his first four years in office.  During his first term, Obama did not shy away from acting alone when Congress was unwilling to support his proposals.  Yet, the president’s frequent use of direct executive action should not come as a surprise.  As political scientists Terry Moe and William Howell claim, the president’s formal capacity to act unilaterally “virtually defines what is distinctively modern about the modern presidency.”  While there have been a number of interesting developments over the last few years in this regard, I wanted to spend some time discussing one unilateral tool in particular: the presidential signing statement.

A signing statement is written commentary on a bill that is being signed into law.  The scholarly literature has shown that these statements can serve a wide range of purposes (praise, criticism, credit claiming, legislative appeals, etc.).  Most controversially, presidents offer their opinion about the constitutionality of various provisions of law and allude to non-enforcement (or altered enforcement in order to avoid constitutional conflicts).  President George W. Bush made the constitutional challenges within signing statements (in)famous by citing problems with approximately 1,200 provisions of legislation; double the amount of all the previous presidents combined.  Those challenges can be found within Bush’s 112 first-term statements and his 50 second-term statements.

The Obama administration has only issued 22 statements during his first term.  While these statements are chock-full of constitutional challenges (Obama’s most recent NDAA signing statement challenges more than 20 sections of law on constitutional grounds), the lack of frequency with which the administration issues them leaves Obama nowhere close to Bush in terms of the number of provisions challenged over a similar timeframe.

Why have we seen fewer signing statements during the Obama administration?

(Side note: anyone interested in this question should keep their eyes peeled for the work of Joel Sievert and Ian Ostrander who recently presented an interesting paper on this topic at the annual meeting of the Southern Political Science Association.)

Roughly speaking, the decline of the signing statement during the Obama administration can be attributed to four interrelated problems that President Obama has faced when aspiring to use this tool.

Friday Feature: Andrew Jackson Riding the Tiger

An etching of the Jackson assassination attempt.

Pictured: an etching of the Jackson assassination attempt.

This week, January 30, is the 178th anniversary of the first recorded attempted presidential assassination.

On January 30, 1835, Andrew Jackson was attending a congressional funeral held in the House chamber of the Capitol. As he exited, Richard Lawrence, an unemployed house painter, approached Jackson and shot at him. Incredibly, his gun misfired. Lawrence pulled out a second pistol and, again, a misfire. By this time Jackson was actively fighting back, reportedly clubbing Lawrence with his walking cane. Bystanders joined in, one of whom was Rep. Davy Crockett of Tennessee, and Lawrence was wrestled to the ground and disarmed.

It's generally accepted that Richard Lawrence was a deeply mentally unstable person, believing that Andrew Jackson was withholding funds that would allow Lawrence to take his rightful place as King Richard III of England (who died in 1485). At his trial, the jury deliberated for five minutes before finding him not guilty by reason of insanity. He spent the rest of his life in mental hospitals, and died in the Government Hospital (later renamed St. Elizabeths Hospital) in 1861.

In the 1930s, the Smithsonian Institution reportedly test fired Lawrence's derringer pistols… both of them fired normally on the first try.

Stay tuned! Every Friday we'll highlight an interesting item from presidential history.

A Citizen’s-eye View of the 57th Inauguration

Citizens and media file into Capitol Hill for the 57th Presidential Inauguration.

Citizens and media file into Capitol Hill for the Public Swearing-In of Barack Obama at the 57th Presidential Inauguration. Photo courtesy of Carah Ong Whaley.

The Presidential Inauguration is an important civic ritual that legitimizes election results and represents a peaceful transfer of power. Last week, I attended President Barack Obama’s second Inauguration with the purpose of providing a citizen’s eye-view of events for RTT followers. While there was a certain measure of pomp and circumstance surrounding the 57th Inauguration, it was off-set by the diversity of the crowd and the President’s liberal, populist appeal.

On the Sunday before the public swearing-in, I attended one of the many Inaugural events being held by non-profit organizations, PACs, lobbyists, and consultants throughout the DC area. These events ranged from black tie balls to more subtle affairs with the purpose of both celebrating political victory and raising more money. Members of Congress made cameo appearances and gave brief speeches to thank the organizations and supporters for helping them get re-elected. They were also already beating the drum to raise money for the 2016 election…the never-ending campaign. As one member of Congress revealed at the event I attended, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently sent out a memo telling all members of Congress that they are to spend four hours per day fundraising. By any measure, that is quite a bit of time to devote to fundraising, especially when Congress began 2013 with its approval rating at 14%. How can Congress actually engage in the hard work required to legislate, govern and serve constituents when so much of their time is expected to be devoted to raising money for the next election? Doesn’t this system only further ingratiate Congress to special interests?

At an event I attended, Angus King (I-Maine) emphasized that we are in a unique era of hyper-partisanship and polarization. As a political scientist, I wanted to point out that it’s actually not so unique. In fact, there have been many periods in American political history when the parties have engaged in deep struggles over the role and direction of government. But his broader point was worth noting. King noted that he was elected not to engage in partisan politics, but to make every attempt to get government working again.

Many other politicians and members of the media also made their cameos. The more liberal media, Senators and members of Congress pressed supporters to rally for a more liberal agenda in President Obama’s second term and to gear up for battle in the 2014 mid-term election. From their speeches, there would seem to be no end to partisan bickering in sight.

The State of the Union According to Millard Fillmore

Official Presidential portrait of Millard Fillmore

Official Presidential portrait of Millard Fillmore, 1857. By G.P.A. Healy. PD

Leading up to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, which will be delivered on February 12, 2013, RTT will provide historical insights and feature materials from our archives.

“[The President] shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient...”

-Article II, U.S. Constitution

Seemingly innocuous constitutional provisions like the one above in Article 2, Section 3 are known for becoming less trivial in the era of “modern” presidents and “legislative leviathans.” When it comes to State of the Union addresses, however, the proof requires far less evidence. On February 12th, Barack Obama will give a speech before both Houses of Congress and a national television audience, and barring a significant shift in presidential strategic action, it will contain a substantive, charismatic appeal to the American people to support his 2013 agenda.

These descriptive facts are alien to States of the Union prior to the 20th century. A simple comparison will make the point clearer. Consider Barack Obama’s 2013 State of the Union in light of another titanic speech certainly worth remembering: the 1850 address of Millard Fillmore.

This is inaccurate, of course, because the 1850 State of the Union was not a speech, it was a letter (as the substantial proportion of SOTU addresses have been). In it, there is little in the way of emotional appeals, and it has an “agenda” that is minor by modern comparison. Fortunately, Fillmore was courteous enough to report the annual revenue and expenditures, and contributions to the reduction in national debt. In addition, it contains pledges to respect the office, an explicit reference to the state of nature, and general references to the goings on of the past year.

This Day in History: Ronald Reagan Addresses Nation on the Challenger Disaster

Ronald Reagan Addresses the Nation on the Challenger Disaster, January 28, 1986

Today marks the anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster when the shuttle broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members. Watch this video of President Ronald Reagan’s address to the nation on January 28, 1986 from the Oval Office. President Reagan was originally scheduled to deliver the annual State of the Union address that evening. Challenger was supposed to be the first mission to put a civilian into space. Reagan reminds the country of the bravery and dedication of those who were killed on the shuttle. The disaster resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the shuttle program and the formation of the Rogers Commission appointed by President Reagan to investigate the accident.

A Voter’s Eye View of the 2012 Election - Charles Stewart III

Charles Stewart III presents a “Voter’s-eye View of the 2012 Election,” GAGE Colloquium, January 18, 2013

During the Miller Center’s January 18th GAGE colloquium, Charles Stewart III, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at MIT and co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, gave a preview of 2012 Election data that, in his words, is “hot off the press.” Stewart gleaned answers from a survey of over ten thousand respondents to some of the most interesting questions regarding election administration in the recent election, including topics such as reasons motivating voter turnout and public opinion regarding voter ID laws.

Overall, Stewart stressed that the vast majority of Americans have a good voting experience. A large proportion of voters wait five minutes or less on election day, and the vast majority of voters say it was very easy to find their polling place. However, Stewart’s talk suggests that more work could be done. In both his colloquium paper and talk, Stewart cited what V.O. Key wrote in 1949: election administration is “the most primitive and neglected branch of our public administration.” This suggests that more time ought to be spent addressing, in a systematic and scientific way, the administrative challenges associated with the expedience, accuracy, and accessibility of voting.

Stewart showed those states that had previous problems with long wait times, particularly Florida, tended to continue to have the same problems--rebutting the notion that the 2012 Election was particularly problematic in that way. Instead, Stewart said long wait times are more often a function of statewide policies, year after year.

For more, watch the full colloquium, which also touched on issues such as higher wait times for minority voters and partisan polarization over election reforms.

This Day in History: Nixon Announces Conclusion of Peace Agreement with Vietnam

Richard Nixon Addresses the Nation on Conclusion of Peace Accords with Vietnam, January 23, 1973.

Forty years ago today, President Richard Nixon announced to the nation that the United States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had finally concluded an agreement to end the war in Vietnam. Nixon had promised to end the Vietnam War in his campaign for the presidency in 1968. In his reelection campaign in 1972, he once again promised to end the war in Vietnam in such a way as to ensure a "a full generation of peace."

In his address on January 23, 1973, Nixon told the nation:

We must recognize that ending the war is only the first step toward building the peace. All parties must now see to it that this is a peace that lasts, and also a peace that heals—and a peace that not only ends the war in Southeast Asia but contributes to the prospects of peace in the whole world.

The official cease-fire, along with the release of all American prisoners of war, went into effect on January 28, though troops remained in Vietnam until the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Miller Center’s Balogh Explains Why Obama’s Second Inaugural Matters

Barack Obama Takes Oath of Office, January 2013

United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts administers the oath of office to President Barack Obama during the Inaugural swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on 21 January 2013. White House photo by Sonya Hebert, PD.

Brian Balogh, the Compton Professor at the Miller Center and the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia, opines on CNN.com that President Obama’s second inaugural address matters because future historians will mark it as the moment the president explained why he is a progressive:

The programs that Obama called for were characteristically liberal: reaffirming the social safety net, equal pay for women, etc. Nothing new here -- just the Obama classic.

What differed this time, and what this moment was made for (to twist the president's own words) was articulating the progressive rationale for these programmatic ends. "Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action," Obama proudly told the nation...

His second election behind him, Obama linked his fate and the nation's to a rationale that propelled tens of millions of Americans into the middle class. By making collective action explicit, Obama yoked a century-old progressive agenda to the nation's founding documents and its past history. "Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people." To achieve America's lofty goals of "life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" will require back watching, backslapping and no shortage of back-scratching as well.

Read Brian’s full op-ed here.

A Tale of Two Inaugurals: Comparing Clinton to Obama

President Bill Clinton Delivers his second Inaugural Address on January 20, 1997.

Second inaugurals tend to meet with less fanfare than their predecessors. However, to say that they lack the same significance oversells the point. Rather, they present a unique opportunity. For example, some Presidents may use the opportunity to signal a political pivot while others may choose to double down on their first term.

Bill Clinton’s second inaugural address, delivered January 20, 1997, is an excellent example of the former. For long stretches it simply reinvigorated the base. However, for those with an acute ear, there are telling signs of a more conciliatory term to come.  

The move to the center that defined his second term was exemplified by decrying the omniscience of the state:

As times change, so government must change. We need a new government for a new century – humble enough not to try to solve all our problems for us, but strong enough to give us the tools to solve our problems for ourselves; a government that is smaller, lives within its means, and does more with less.

In clearly suggesting that the idea of shrinking government was up for debate, Clinton opened the window for then-Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Honoring MLK in the Inaugural

Reagan Speech on the Creation of the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Holiday, November 2, 1983

The theme of this year’s inauguration is “Our People, Our Future,” a theme intended to promote national unity and reconciliation as most inaugurals do. In a Presidential Inaugural Committee video released over the weekend, President Obama noted that two men he admires more than anyone in American history are Dr. Martin Luther King and President Abraham Lincoln because without them, he would not be in office. The inaugural weekend once again featured a “Day of Service” because the public ceremony falls on the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday. President Obama told the country:

The inauguration reminds us of the role we have as citizens in promoting a common good as well as making sure we carry out our individual responsibilities.

President Obama will be sworn into his second term using the bibles of Dr. King and President Lincoln, bringing additional significance to the inaugural ceremonies as this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th Anniversary of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Dr. King’s speech to the participants in the August 1963 march was one of the most memorable moments and he roused the crowd by addressing the racial injustices and discrimination that continued to plague the nation 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. He criticized the nation for defaulting on a “promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned”:

Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

In some of the most powerful lines of the speech, Dr. King told the crowd he had a dream. Among his dreams was that his “four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Reagan Wanted to Announce Conclusion of the Iran Hostage Crisis in his Inaugural

Vice President George Bush and other VIP's wait to welcome the former hostages to Iran home.

Vice President George Bush and other VIP’s wait to welcome the former hostages to Iran home. Andrews Air Force Base, 27 January 1981. Photo by Templeton. PD.

January 20th marks not only the anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration as president of the United States in 1981, but also the release of 52 American hostages who were held in Iran for 444 days.

President Reagan had hoped to make announcement regarding the release of hostages in his inaugural address and, in fact, wrote an insert of his own for that contingency. If the hostages were released on Inauguration Day, he was going to get a signal, and then he was going to announce to the country that the hostages were released. Ken Khachigian, Reagan’s chief speechwriter, argued with him about making the announcement during the inaugural. According to Khachigian, who gave his account of the matter during a Miller Center symposium:

I said it would interrupt the historical quality of the speech, that he could easily do something about that after the speech. It wouldn’t fit into the nature of the inaugural address. But had they been released during that speech and had he gotten that signal, he would have read that insert.

Of course the hostages were released shortly after Reagan took the Oath of Office on the day Jimmy Carter departed, but not early enough for Reagan to receive the signal and include the announcement in his inaugural address.

In short diary entries in the days following the Inauguration, Reagan wrote about the conclusion of the crisis:  

Hostages will arrive in country tomorrow. It seems some of them had tough questions for Carter in Germany as to why they were there so long and why there were there to begin with.

Ceremony on S. Lawn to welcome hostages home. Thousands of people in attendance. Met the familys [sic] earlier. Now we had in addition the familys [sic] of the 8 men who lost their lives in the rescue attempt. One couple lost their only son. His widow was also here. I’ve had a lump in my throat all day.

Check out these interviews conducted for the Miller Center's Jimmy Carter Oral History Project, which offer insights into not only how the President and his team handled the hostage crisis for the U.S. government, but also how the crisis crippled Carter's 1980 re-election campaign. Interviews for the Ronald Reagan Oral History Project also shed light on how Reagan's team viewed the situation, and how they approached it even before the nation's 40th President was inaugurated.