Tonight, President Trump will give his first State of the Union address amid plans for boycotts by prominent African American legislators and protests by some female members of Congress.
There are well-established expectations. Though Trump styles himself as a master of disruption, his speech will likely follow the standard format, outlining successes from the previous year and goals for the upcoming one. Like some of his predecessors, Trump will also have to grapple with the baggage of his historic unpopularity, both among the public and with the members in the chamber.
Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson, faced this same challenge when he delivered what would turn out to be his next-to-last State of the Union to Congress amid the divisive Vietnam War. It did not go well. Despite substantial planning, his efforts fared poorly, causing Johnson to squander this national opportunity to unite a polarized electorate. His message ultimately fell flat because he failed to inspire Americans and connect with them about the issues that resonated most deeply. Johnson’s failures could provide Trump with some useful lessons on how to tackle tonight’s address.
Months before his 1968 State of the Union, Johnson’s staff recognized the importance of this event to his governing agenda and reelection prospects. Conveying the administration’s vast accomplishments as well as offering a vision for moving forward was no easy task, however.
Chief White House aide Joseph Califano saw the speech as “a battleground for the President’s mind.” In 1968, there were many different people battling for Johnson’s attention. The public seemed more concerned with questions of law and order than with the grand initiatives to combat poverty that were closest to Johnson’s heart. Political opponents of Johnson’s domestic agenda, like the powerful Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.), sought to undermine the Great Society. On the other side were people like Califano, who wanted Johnson to tackle his critics head-on, making an affirmative case for his vision.
Regardless of what course he chose, it was most critical, Califano noted, for the president to inspire supporters and critics alike with the promise that things would get better.
As internal battles raged over what to emphasize, by January 4, speechwriter Harry McPherson produced the first full draft.
Johnson was not happy. As he edited the draft, he called aide Horace Busby to lodge a complaint that has plagued most State of the Union addresses: “This goddamn draft they’ve given me wouldn’t make chickens crackle if you waved it at ‘em in the dark . . . It’s too long, too dull, too flat, too bureaucratic,” he said, adding, “every little two-bit bureau in the government has managed to get at least one line in on their pet project.”
Frustrated, Johnson continued searching for the right tone to promote healing and cooperation.
Finally, on January 17, at 9:01 p.m., the doorkeeper of the House announced, “The President of the United States.” Johnson entered to a thunderous applause.
For nearly 45 minutes, he talked to the nation. Dressed in a somber black suit, he opened by acknowledging the dark times, ones radically different than three years earlier. “I report to you that our country is challenged, at home and abroad,” he said. Johnson then tried to comfort Americans, assuring them that they, as a people “nurtured by their deep faith, tutored by their hard lessons, moved by their high aspirations — have the will to meet the trials that these times impose.”
But the president made a tactical mistake by opening with a discussion of the most controversial issue of the day: Vietnam. Former secretary of state Dean Acheson had tried warning him beforehand against using the “tired cliches” that dotted these “thoroughly boring” sections. But Johnson ignored his admonitions, unwilling to accept that continuing the same policies without bold changes would not be accepted by many Americans on either side of the divide.
That discussion gave the speech a contentious tone, and Johnson never recovered. Opening with a controversial issue put Johnson at a disadvantage. He pleased neither the hawks nor doves as he talked.
His impressive legislative record on domestic policy did little to regain the lost momentum. Johnson highlighted how the country had gone through 83 months of uninterrupted growth. Despite underscoring many achievements, from job creation to new housing, he stressed “much remains for us to master,” such as joblessness, high crime rates and pollution.
“We have lived with conditions like these for many, many years. But much that we once accepted as inevitable, we now find absolutely intolerable,” he pointed out. Johnson outlined a series of proposals to combat the problems, but many Americans, including those sitting in the chamber, did not want to hear new calls for reform.
Ominously, the only time Johnson received uniform applause from both sides of the aisle was when he stressed “the National Government can and . . . should help the cities and the States in their war on crime to the full extent of its resources and its constitutional authority.” Two journalists observed it was “the one genuine spontaneous reaction to a Presidential proposal — his anti-crime plan — was magnified to a most uncongressional cheer.”
This enthusiasm was deeply problematic, because it did not mesh with the president’s priorities. He cared more about a war on poverty than combating crime. But the enthusiastic response exposed that his audience had shifted its attention to the latter, ultimately revealing the disconnect between the president’s agenda and sentiments growing across the country.
As the speech ended, Johnson tried to inspire people. “Can we achieve these goals?” he asked, and answered: “If there ever was a nation that was capable of solving its problems, it is this nation.”
As Johnson left the chamber, first lady Lady Bird Johnson joined him and observed, “I had felt a surge of optimism in the Chamber.” However, neither Cabinet members nor congressional leaders rushed forward to offer the president help on his agenda, which worried her. That night, she admitted, “the first maggots of doubt began to gnaw at the good feeling I had.”
The following day, Lady Bird expressed more doubts. “If we tasted the wine of success last night, it was indeed a brief draught.” She noted that with “at least in the Eastern metropolitan papers — there were largely negative or unenthusiastic.” One writer correctly noted the speech “reflected the weariness and anxiety of a nation plunged into a seemingly endless war abroad and growing division and disorder at home.”
The polls reinforced the bad feelings. One indicated that 45 percent of the respondents gave the speech a favorable rating and 55 percent gave it an unfavorable vote — bad marks for a president entering an election year.
But the State of the Union only foreshadowed coming problems. Within a short time, the North Koreans seized the USS Pueblo, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive and a mere two months after the speech, Johnson announced his decision not to seek reelection. It was only the start of what he characterized as a “year of a continuous nightmare.”
While no one can accurately predict what will unfold in 2018, the State of the Union gives the president an opportunity to set a tone and address his supporters and critics alike. Like Johnson, Trump faces similar divisions (and scores ten points less in the polls), so he should recognize the challenges. If wise, he will search for common ground, stay positive and avoid the dark and divisive themes often presented at his rallies as well as manage expectations, understanding there are a lot of nervous Republicans up for reelection sitting in the chamber.
For the White House and their allies, they must hope it goes better for Trump in 2018 than it did for Johnson in 1968.