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State of the Union

01/19/07 12:00AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST) Next Tuesday evening, the President will once again address congress and the nation on the State of the Union. Commentator Vic Henningsen wonders why this particular event always seems to be such a challenge - both for the President - and for the audience.

(HENNINGSEN) Back in 1787, the Framers inserted into Article II of the Constitution a requirement that the President shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union. What were they thinking?

Every year we watch it and emerge from the experience asking What was that all about? And pity the poor president: every year he faces this test of his capacity as the nation's communicator in chief and every year he fails it. And I'm not just talking about this president. Take a couple of seconds to consider state of the union messages you remember vividly. . . . See what I mean? And, no, the Gettysburg Address wasn't one of them.

Once again, my high school students get it right: assigned to watch the state of the union as homework, most request detention instead.

Thomas Jefferson had the right idea. A poor public speaker, he dreaded the occasion; then realized, Wait a minute the Constitution doesn't say I have to give it in person. He literally mailed it in. For over a century presidents followed his lead and bored clerks read the annual message aloud while most of Congress broke for coffee.

Woodrow Wilson renewed the personal appearance back in 1913 and it became standard with Franklin Roosevelt. By 1965, when Lyndon Johnson moved it from mid-afternoon to evening prime time, the State of the Union address was a major media event.

And that's the problem: the Academy Award-style hype raises public expectations so high that disappointment is inevitable - for both the president and his audience. Sweeping visions don't fit easily in a speech outlining the nuts and bolts of a legislative agenda.

For example, in 2003, President Bush's case for action against Iraq was the twenty-fifth item on a list that included things like double taxation of dividends, Clear Skies, Healthy Forests, faith-based initiatives, and hydrogen-powered cars. Regardless of your position on Bush or Iraq, it's clear that the overstuffed nature of the modern state of the union address works against delivering a clear and powerful message about much of anything.

It doesn't have to be that way. Probably the most famous state of the union was Roosevelt's in 1941, what we remember as the Four Freedoms address. As world war threatened, FDR omitted the customary reassurance that the state of the union was strong the only modern president to do so. He stripped the speech of the usual laundry list of unrelated topics to focus on one point only: the nation must be ready to prepare for war. Roosevelt's address was a model of clarity, carefully designed to persuade Congress and the public to change their thinking in the light of new realities.

So it can be done. But the 217 other - largely forgotten - state of the union messages in our history suggest just how difficult it is.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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