Today’s Washington Post digs into oral histories to find speechwriters’ reflections on the State of the Union. From RN speechwriter Lee Huebner:
I think it’s a schizophrenic speech. On the one hand, it’s an administrative tool, it’s a way of managing the government . . . of defining priorities, of getting input from every bureau and agency. . . . It all comes together and then gets mashed into an overlong, often very dull speech. . . .
On the other hand, it’s a state occasion — it’s become a great ceremony. I think this happened mainly when Lyndon Johnson decided to move it from noon until evening . . . in 1965. And suddenly, instead of the kind of speech for the well-informed people who follow government closely, it became a speech for the general public. Presidents have felt the demand to make it an uplifting, ceremonial, rhetorical success, and these two objectives, I think, clash.
Reportedly, President Obama’s theme will be a “new foundation,” a phrase that he has already used many times. “The New Foundation” was the theme of Jimmy Carter’s 1979 State of the Union (not an auspicious sign). Other presidents also used the phrase in various speeches and documents. In 1973, for instance, RN said the the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks: “No decision of this magnitude could have been taken unless it was part of a broader commitment to place relations on a new foundation of restraint, cooperation, and steadily evolving confidence.”
There is no constitutional requirement that the president present the State of the Union as a speech. In 1973, RN took up the pre-Wilson practice of delivering it in writing, as one of a series of messages. In 1974, he delivered his last State of the Union in person.