It was that time of year again this week - on Tuesday, the POTUS made his way over to Capitol Hill for the latest installment in the annual rite known as the State of the Union address. But a brief look at history will show that it was not always thus. Xeni Jardin talks to Slate political correspondent John Dickerson about the evolution of a media spectacle.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
XENI JARDIN: And I'm Xeni Jardin, sitting in for Brooke Gladstone. Article Two of the U.S. Constitution is basically a bare-bones job description for the nation's President. The first section lays out the prerequisites and the last, details the procedures for early termination. In between, there's just two other sections. One expounds on the basic powers of the office and the other requires that the President from time to time give to Congress information of the state of the union. That's it – from time to time – not every year, give information, not proffer a laundry list of policy initiatives and market-tested political rhetoric. But over the years, the basic mandate has spawned an elaborate annual rite. On the eve of this past Tuesday's latest installment, Slate political correspondent John Dickerson, offered a brief history of that spectacle. Turns out it was not always thus.
JOHN DICKERSON: Presidents have not always had to do it in person. In fact, Thomas Jefferson in 1801, stopped the ceremony. He said it smacked too much of the British monarchy, and so he delivered his address by mail. And that was continued for about a hundred years, when Woodrow Wilson revived the ceremony and started doing it in person again. And it was done in the afternoon. It was not the major national event that it is now. Of course, there weren't televisions at that point, but it took Lyndon Johnson to move it into prime-time to turn this State of the Union into the massive media national spectacle that it is now.
XENI JARDIN: So as the State of the Union moved into becoming well, a media event, how did that affect the content and the role of the State of the Union culturally?
JOHN DICKERSON: Well, it started to become a more political speech. When Johnson, in 1966, put it into prime time, that was the first time the opposition party – in that case, the Republicans – insisted on having a response to the President. And that really locked it in as a purely political speech. If Thomas Jefferson were alive today, he would weep watching the President walk into the House chamber because members of Congress, they paw at him. They shake his hand, they smile, they kiss him, in some instances, and it's as if they're trying to, you know, touch the hem of the royal garment. And the members of Congress are doing this, of course, because they want to be seen in primetime back in the home district with the President.
XENI JARDIN: So John, this evolution into theatrics also includes other players, other than the President, taking part in this.
JOHN DICKERSON: That's right. Well, Ronald Reagan, the former actor, knew how to spruce up an event, so one year he began the tradition of pointing to members in the balcony.
RONALD REAGAN: In the midst of a terrible tragedy on the Potomac, we saw again the spirit of American heroism at its finest, and we saw the heroism of one of our young government employees, Lenny Skutnik who, when he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety. [APPLAUSE]
JOHN DICKERSON: And so he pointed to Lenny Skutnik. And now we are stuck with that tradition of pointing to members in the gallery, which the President did on Tuesday evening, pointing out a family of a slain U.S. serviceman.
XENI JARDIN: So you also talked about the applause race during the address. What's wrong with a little bit of applause?
JOHN DICKERSON: Well, nothing's wrong with a little bit of applause. It's just that when it becomes really a line of applause interrupted by a speech, then that kind of gets the order wrong. And this is, in fact, our fault. The press used to treat, and still does in some ways, the number of applause interruptions as if it's a gauge of something serious. John Kennedy's first State of the Union Address in 1961, the New York Times mentioned the fact that Kennedy had gotten – I think it was 30-some-odd interruptions in his speech and that that was different from the average that Eisenhower had gotten. They were measuring, quite seriously, the number of interruptions and using them as a gauge to inform readers about how much the Congress approved of the President's program.
XENI JARDIN: In your Slate piece, it's almost like you're tracing an arc of the State of the Union from its beginnings as a primarily text-based document, to something that was delivered orally, to something that become a media event, and I'm wondering what you see the next phase in that evolution. I mean, is this something that the President could conceivably just e-mail, you know, bcc'ing the rest of the nation?
JOHN DICKERSON: That would be a great idea. It would spare us some of this.
XENI JARDIN: [LAUGHS]
JOHN DICKERSON: I say that, though, but Americans like their rituals, and it's important to have ceremonies every once in a while, as long as we all don't take them too seriously. But I think it would be great if the President would put out a text of his speech and have the proposals that he offers be, say, hyperlinked to items in his budget. Presidents always put out their budget a few days after the State of the Union, and it often contradicts what’s been said in the State of the Union, and it would be great to be able to sort of see those side by side. I think also it would be clever – no White House would want to do this – but certainly it would be clever for some journalist to take the previous year's speech and hyperlink the promises there to the actual realities as they came to pass. So there are lots of ways that you can sort of annotate the speeches to keep the President honest, because one of the problems with it becoming a show and becoming a political act is that it encourages lots of applause lines that tend to be divorced from the reality of the world. And it also encourages the kind of political rhetoric that's maybe fine for a convention, but there’s, it's a good thing we only have them every four years. It's usually the kind of thing that gets everybody cheering, but that doesn't usually lead to a lot of good solutions.
XENI JARDIN: Well, maybe if they just sent it out as a text message to phones, that’d solve the wordiness problem, because then you'd be limited to, what, 162 characters.
JOHN DICKERSON: That's right. It would force them into -
XENI JARDIN: [LAUGHS]
JOHN DICKERSON: - into incredibly succinct thinking. [LAUGHS] That's right.
XENI JARDIN: Well, John Dickerson, thank you so much for joining us.
JOHN DICKERSON: Thanks so much for having me.
XENI JARDIN: John Dickerson is chief political correspondent for Slate.