Reality often disappears in State of the Union talks

January 25, 1994|By Chicago Tribune

And now, as President Clinton prepares to meet his constitutional obligation to tell Congress how things are going, it's time for . . . "State of the Union Quiz"!

You need not be a student of history to play, but skepticism about presidents and what they say in their big annual visits to Congress might help.

Who made these statements in State of the Union addresses?

1. "The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America."

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2. "No Congress of the United States ever assembled, on surveying the State of the Union, has met with a more pleasing prospect than that which appears at the present time. In the domestic field there is tranquillity and contentment, harmonious relations between management and wage earner, freedom from industrial strife and the highest record of years of prosperity. . . . The great wealth created by our enterprise and industry, and saved by our economy, has had the widest distribution among our own people and has gone out in a steady stream to serve the charity and the business of the world."

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3. ". . . Because of the initiatives undertaken by this administration the world has changed. America has changed. As a result of those changes America is safer today, more prosperous today with greater opportunities for more of its people than ever before in our history. . . . I shall launch . . . an effort this year at the highest levels of the administration, and I look forward again to working with this Congress and establishing a new set of standards that respect the legitimate needs of society but that also recognize personal privacy as a cardinal principle of American liberty."

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4. "The fundamental difficulties which have brought about financial strains in foreign countries do not exist in the United States. No external drain on our resources can threaten our position, because the balance of international payments is in our favor; we owe less to foreign countries than they owe to us; our industries are efficiently organized; our currency and bank deposits are protected by the greatest gold reserve in history."

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What is most interesting about these quotations (once they are attached to their speakers) is that they seem almost wackily out of step with the eras in which they were made and in some cases a little out of character.

They were gleaned from State of the Union addresses by Richard Nixon, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge. But knowing the names doesn't help much in pinning the quotation to the person.

That is a measure of how misleading such addresses can be.

Reality flees when presidents reach for images for their annual addresses. The speeches are as much about the America the president wanted to create as about the America that actually existed.

When Mr. Clinton faces Congress tonight, his challenge will be to revive the fortunes of his health-care proposal -- in the face of resistance from key members of his own party -- raise the possibility of realistic welfare reform and say something at least consoling about the perception the nation is suffering a crime wave.

Quiz Quote No. 1, the strong anti-welfare statement, came from Franklin Roosevelt's 1935 address -- this from a man who did more to expand the idea of government responsibility for the welfare of its citizens than any other president in history.

No. 2 comes from Silent Cal Coolidge's 1928 presidential message. It hardly sounds like the description of a nation on the brink of the most serious depression in modern history. To be sure, it probably seemed to most people as though the United States was humming along on the path of eternal growth -- a delusion, as it turned out.

Quote No. 3 was made in 1974 by Richard Nixon -- not viewed as much of an advocate of personal liberties, what with the muggers and buggers of the Watergate scandal pasted to his record. He would resign on Aug. 8 of that year.

No. 4 is from Herbert Hoover at the end of 1931, when the nation was slipping deeper into depression and the conservative but compassionate chief executive was on his way to yielding to the big-government era of FDR.

State of the Union reports have been around forever. George Washington delivered the first one. But they haven't always carried the weight that tonight's will -- delivered to Congress and a national TV audience.

If State of the Union addresses once were merely statements sent to Congress, these days they are full-blown media events, the perfect vehicle for a president who wants to carry his message directly to the people.

The Constitution requires these annual reports, but early on presidents and Congress felt uncomfortable about them because they seemed too much like the "speeches from the throne" that the British Parliament received from the monarch.

Thomas Jefferson discontinued the practice of actually visiting Congress, and for 113 years presidents simply sent long messages to Capitol Hill expressing their assessments of the nation and what legislation they would be pushing.

Woodrow Wilson changed that with a brief visit and speech to the House of Representatives April 9, 1913, on a tariff issue, but not without a struggle with lawmakers. It wasn't a State of the Union address, but it set the stage for President Wilson's first one, in 1913.

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