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. Heubner described the SOTU under Nixon as fulfilling the purposes of both defining administration priorities and managing government. For the Nixon White House, writing the State of the Union began in the Fall before the speech was given and the administration sought input from every government department and agency.
In comparison, according to Clark Judge, the Reagan administration thought of the SOTU as a negotiating game with the Congress. It was part of setting up the administration’s domestic policy agenda with Congress for the year, rallying Congressional support of the budgets, and marshaling public opinion. The Reagan administration also only began crafting the SOTU in late December. It was also drafted in a more top-down approach, with President Reagan setting down clear objectives and principles early on. The role of the speechwriters was, according to Judge, “to mediate, to negotiate and to get the speech where the president would want it while taking account of all of the elements in the government and of the political coalitions, which also weighed in.”
The Clinton White House also approached the SOTU in its own unique way. Terry Edmonds said it was the “most labor-intensive project of the year for speechwriting” because writing for Clinton “was excruciatingly collaborative.” The Clinton SOTU process began before Thanksgiving and Clinton would solicit one-page synopses from great thinkers of the country with what they would like to see in the SOTU. Most of the agencies would also weigh in and the speechwriters would meet with cabinet secretaries to learn what they wanted in the speech. According to Edmonds, “A lot of times the hardest part was telling someone, ‘No, it’s not going to be in the speech. I’m sorry. It’s too long already. While that program is worthwhile and wonderful, the president will do a speech on it later.” Pollster Mark Penn was involved in helping the speechwriters craft points the administration wanted to make in a way that would resonate with the public. Clinton always had the final word, though, and sometimes his version would look nothing like the original.
The three presidents also differed in rehearsing the speech. Nixon went through his speeches very rigorously to himself, underlining words as he went line-by-line. Reagan, on the other hand, like to rehearse out loud and to ensure delivery was well-timed. Although Clinton “was more like a jazz musician,” according to Edmonds, who liked to do a lot of rifting onstage, he also rehearsed and timed the SOTU with speechwriters because he understood the networks limited his time.
Speechwriters from Nixon, Reagan and Clinton agree that the objectives of the SOTU are to set the president up for that he is trying to achieve that year, to get a bounce in public approval of the president, to inoculate the public when introducing controversial policies and to generate support for policies within Congress. According to Clinton speechwriter Terry Edmonds:
I think the overall objective is to nudge Congress to do what you want them to do, sometimes to embarrass them to do it, to put them on notice that this is something you’re going to fight for. Also…to roll out something to the public and to see the reaction…
One of the interesting things I’m sure everybody notices about the state of the union is that one side of the aisle sits on their hands while the other side applauds at certain points. It can be a partisan moment, too, because you’re challenging Congress to do things the way you want them done.
On Edmonds’ last point regarding partisanship, Nixon speechwriter Lee Heubner points out that state of the union addresses have become increasingly partisan over time. Some evidence to support this is the tradition since 1966 of an opposition party response to the president following the SOTU. It is almost a game of chicken in the sense that the parties are trying to see who is striking the most responsive chord with the public. Ken Khachigian has noted that the spectacle of partisanship that plagues state of the unions has taken away the dignity of the address.
Watch more of the speechwriters’ perspectives on the SOTU during this Miller Center symposium panel.