GEORGE BUSH's publicists hyped his annual message to...

THEO LIPPMAN JR.

February 01, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

GEORGE BUSH's publicists hyped his annual message to Congress as if it were the Super Bowl. I began to think of it as State of the Union XLIV.

Wait a minute, Theo, the more astute of you Readers are saying, didn't these messages start with the first president? How could there have been only XLIV? Shouldn't that be CCIII?

Good question. Good answer:

The Constitution says the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress information on the state of the Union."

The first president, George Washington, took that to mean an annual message. He delivered one every year, beginning in 1790. The next president, John Adams, did the same through 1800, the year the capital moved from Philly to D.C.

Thereafter for the next 112 years, the tradition of the president reading these messages to the Congress was abandoned. As President Thomas Jefferson said, "Now that we are all infide ye Beltway, it is not neceffary." The presidents just sent written annual messages to Capitol Hill for a clerk to read into the record.

Most presidents have saved their best stuff for other speeches. Bartlett's "Familiar Quotations" has entries for 27 presidents, but only seven of them are cited for annual messages. "Speeches of the American Presidents," edited by Janet Podell and Steven Anzovin, is a compilation of 180 "major" speeches, of every president from Washington through Ronald Reagan, of which only six are annual messages.

A few have worn very well. "To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace." -- George Washington. "The American continents are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers." -- James Monroe. (The Monroe Doctrine.) "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present." -- Abraham Lincoln. "We look forward to a world founded on four essential freedoms [of speech, to worship, from want, from fear]." ("The Four Freedoms.") -- Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The "Congressional Directory" official record of joint sessions of Congress, which presidents face when they speak directly to members, lists these speeches as "Annual message" through 1946 and "State of the Union Address" thereafter.

Many presidents before 1947 referred informally to their speeches as "State of the Union" speeches, but in official records they were always labeled (maybe not always; I'm basing this on a random check) "Annual Message." There has been a presidentially delivered State of the Union address to Congress every year since 1947, except in 1973 and 1981. So Bush's Tuesday was the 44th. And back to the point, despite its hype, it included nothing memorable -- or politically effective.

Of course, no "Annual message" ever elected a man president. But a "State of the Union" did.

Wednesday: Why Grant Matthews didn't become president and Ronald Reagan did.

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