Woodrow Wilson revived the tradition of the oral State of the Union address

Many presidents gave speeches that went over 20,000 words

January 29, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

One hundred and thirteen years had elapsed since the last oral State of the Union address when President Woodrow Wilson stood before a joint session of Congress in 1913, reviving a tradition that began with George Washington in 1790.

The last president to do so before Wilson was John Adams, who read his 1,372-word State of the Union message before members of both houses of Congress in 1800.

From 1801 until the administration of President William Howard Taft, State of the Union addresses were written and sent to congressional members by messenger for reading at their leisure.

Also from 1790 to 1934, when the date was switched to January during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, State of the Union messages were generally released by the president in November or, more often than not, in December.

During his years in office, Wilson adhered to the December date for State of the Union address, and presented his first message to a joint session of Congress in 1913.

"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," observed an editorial in The Baltimore Sun.

"Mr. Wilson's own statement that he believes it to be the dignified and natural thing to deliver his own message instead of sending the document by messenger from the White House and having it read by a clerk, is sound and reasonable," said the editorial.

The Sun further observed that no congressman or senator "ever really reads or grasps a Presidential message," because they have been "appallingly long and the beginning of the reading has been the signal for a general exodus to the cloak rooms.

"The truth is the members of both houses have dodged listening to the messages as they would the plague."

No wonder collective congressional attention spans at times were taxed. The first written address compiled by Thomas Jefferson in 1801 weighed in at 3,224 words.

Presidential verbosity began reaching the stratosphere when Andrew Jackson's first written appraisal of the soundness of the nation reached 10,525 words in 1829. The next year, he added another 5,000 words for good measure.

Even though Calvin Coolidge had a reputation for being a man of few words — there is the story of his response to a woman who said she had bet she could get him to utter more than two words at a dinner: "You lose" — he was fully capable of turning in a 10,848-word assessment of the country in 1925.

In modern times, the prize for lack of leanness would have to go to Harry S. Truman for his address in 1946, which came in at 27,465 words.

He gave six oral addresses and reverted to the written State of the Union address in 1953, his last year in the White House.

Since the days of Truman, the presidential range has been between 4,000 to 7,000 words. Barack Obama's first State of the Union address was 7,304 words. His address last week came in at 6,936 words.

Unlike presidents nowadays, who have a squad of writers and advisers to make their speeches sound important and inspirational, Wilson wrote his own speeches. He preferred to compose them on a typewriter.

When he stepped into the House of Representatives at 1:08 p.m. Dec. 2, 1913, to give his first State of the Union address, The Sun reported that the "galleries were thronged" and his speech was "followed with the closest attention."

"In pursuance of my constitutional duty to 'give to the Congress information of the state of the Union,' I take the liberty of addressing you on several matters which ought, as it seems to me, particularly to engage the attention of your honorable bodies, as of all who study the welfare and progress of the Nation," he began.

"I shall ask your indulgence if I venture to depart in some degree from the usual custom of setting before you in a formal review of the many matters which have engaged the attention and called for the action of several departments of the Government or which look to them for early treatment in the future, because the list is long, very long, and would suffer in the abbreviations to which I should have to subject it," Wilson said.

The subject matter of Wilson's speech was reminiscent of issues facing the nation today.

While lauding the country for being at "peace with all the world," Wilson said that "there is but one cloud upon our horizon. That has shown itself to the south of us, and hangs over Mexico."

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