Ranking the SOTU: The 5th best State of the Union address

From today until Tuesday’s State of the Union address, The Fix is going to be counting down what we think are the five most important of these annual presidential talk-a-thons.  They're ranked in order of their relative importance and lasting historical resonance. Today we tackle Woodrow Wilson's 1913 speech.

Woodrow Wilson’s State of the Union in 1913 was the first to be delivered aloud since John Adams delivered his. (During the Adams speech, a Democratic-Republican representative from Vermont was almost expelled for being a “diabolical personage.”) Thomas Jefferson decided to just send a copy of his presidential to-do list over to Congress and let legislators read it at their own pace, instead of forcing them to offer a response immediately. He also thought a State of the Union speech felt a bit too much like a “speech from the throne,” says Michael Beschloss, a historian of the American presidency, and emulating the crown felt a little "too soon" for the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson

Wilson’s success at making the night of subtext-laden clapping and dad jokes (and an occasional policy proposal or two) a tradition is mostly the reason he deserves a place on this list. People in Washington were shocked by Wilson’s decision to break 112 years of precedent.

The Baltimore Sun’s editorial on the upcoming speech noted: "It is hard to see how anything but good can come of the decision of Woodrow Wilson to personally deliver his first message to Congress by appearing in the House of Representatives and reading it to the members in joint session, thereby departing from the custom of Presidents for 100 years before him, who have transmitted their messages from the White House and permitted them to be perfunctorily mumbled by clerks. … The truth is the members of both houses have dodged listening to the messages as they would the plague." A New York Times reporter wrote, “Announcement of the President’s purpose to go to the Capitol on Tuesday to deliver his message before the joint session of Congress caused profound astonishment among Senators and Representatives. There was little criticism of his plan, possibly because they were too startled by the news to give any coherent expression of their views.” The Washington Post’s article had the subheading, “WASHINGTON IS AMAZED,” something that has perhaps never been uttered since with such earnestness.

Woodrow Wilson wrote his speech himself on his typewriter, and it clocked in at just over 3,500 words. It took him 28 minutes to read it to Congress, and he closed off with a series of very complimentary flourishes -- perhaps a Plan B if this experiment turned rotten: "May I not express the very real pleasure I have experienced in co-operating with this Congress and sharing with it the labors of common service to which it has devoted itself so unreservedly during the past seven months of uncomplaining concentration upon the business of legislation? Surely it is a proper and pertinent part of my report on 'the state of the Union' to express my admiration for the diligence, the good temper, and the full comprehension of public duty which has already been manifested by both the Houses; and I hope that it may not be deemed an impertinent intrusion of myself into the picture if I say with how much and how constant satisfaction I have availed myself of the privilege of putting my time and energy at their disposal alike in counsel and in action."

However, Washington's amazement had quickly dissipated over the course of that half-hour, starting another State of the Union tradition -- annual disappointment in the president's speech. Mississippi Senator John Sharp William took the Jefferson line, describing the speech as ''a cheap and tawdry imitation of the pomposities and cavalcadings of monarchial countries.'' Pomposities! Cavalcadings!

The delivery of Wilson's State of the Union wasn't the only novel thing future presidents have continued to borrow. The tone -- less "passive report," more "call to arms" -- was relatively new too, a practice Wilson had borrowed from Teddy Roosevelt, who used the speech as an opportunity to lay out his trust-busting agenda.

Wilson's restart of the live State of the Union hasn't continued uninterrupted since 1913; Wilson himself had to deliver the speech by hand rather than via his dulcet tones in 1919 and 1920 because of bad health. Calvin Coolidge used up his term's allotment of speaking in his first State of the Union address, submitting the rest by hand. Herbert Hoover's four State of the Union speeches were also not delivered aloud, but since then presidents have been mostly consistent with the Wilson model of presidential speechifying.

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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