It takes a lot to shock Washington. The city has a seen a lot during its 227 years. I’m not saying Washingtonians are jaded; but it takes something truly exceptional to get beyond their “been there, done that” reaction to most things.
Yet you can always count on a major departure from precedent to seriously rattle the old town. The unspoken credo, “We’ve always done things this way” runs deep in the capital. So breaking with the past is a sure-fire way to seize Washington’s attention.
Believe it or not, one president did that 105 years ago with a bombshell announcement.
In 1913, newly inaugurated Democratic President Woodrow Wilson said he would depart from a century-old tradition and deliver his State of the Union address to Congress in person.
And Washington practically came unhinged. Really.
To understand why, you must go back to the country’s first days. The Constitution directs the president to, “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Our first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, delivered their reports in an annual speech to Congress.
But President Thomas Jefferson had a different idea. His report would be sent to Congress in written form. The official reason was he wanted to avoid monarchial majesty and restore democratic simplicity to government. Sending his thoughts in writing without all the fuss of a formal trip up Pennsylvania Avenue was the perfect way to highlight the new tone.
But there was a private, more compelling reason: Jefferson was a lousy public speaker. When reading prepared remarks, he stared at the paper and barely spoke above a whisper. Only people sitting in the front row of his audience could hear him, and even then they had to strain their ears just to catch a few phrases here and there. So it was natural that the president who was more comfortable with the written word (this was the guy who penned the Declaration of Independence, remember) would fulfill his constitutional obligation in writing.
It worked and, for the next 112 consecutive years, his successors did likewise.
Until Wilson arrived in 1913. He had campaigned on a platform of populist reforms and wanted to focus attention on them. His predecessor Teddy Roosevelt had already defined the presidency as the nation’s “bully pulpit”; what better congregation was there for spreading the president’s sermon than an address to Congress?
Wilson decided 112 years was long enough: He would become the first president to speak to Congress in person.
Here’s how the Washington Post described the reaction: “All official Washington was agape last night over the decision of the President to go back to the long-abandoned custom. Strangely enough, there was a little criticism of what the President ‘intends’ to do. That may be due, however, to the fact that senators and representatives are too astonished over what some of them regard as a startling move to give any coherent expression to their views.”
By the way, Wilson had another unusual presidential quality. He not only wrote the address himself, he also typed it on a little manual typewriter in the White House. Can you imagine any modern president doing that?
Wilson’s gamble paid off. He got the media attention he wanted. It worked so well, the vast majority of State of the Union addresses ever since have been delivered by the president in person.
Finally, the speech wasn’t formally called the State of the Union address until 1947. Before that, it was known simply as the Annual Message. Bill Clinton’s 1995 address was the longest spoken version, clocking in at just under 9,200 words. The very first, delivered by Washington in 1790, was almost 1,1,00 words.
Here’s hoping president No. 45 follows No. 1’s example and keeps it short and sweet on Tuesday night. But don’t count on it.
J. Mark Powell (@JMarkPowell) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former broadcast journalist and government communicator. His weekly offbeat look at our forgotten past, "Holy Cow! History," can be read at jmarkpowell.com.
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