On January 27, 1998, six short days after news broke of his improper relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, President Clinton strode to the lectern in the House chamber to deliver a State of the Union speech. Despite calls for his resignation, he held forth for over an hour as the nation watched, riveted by the remarkable performance of a president soldiering on with the people’s business, despite his own embarrassing ordeal. He said nothing about the scandal. To this day, it holds the record for the most watched SOTU speech in modern times, maybe ever.
Less than a week later, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was at the White House for a State Dinner. I was among the guests that evening, seated at the president’s table, where Lewinsky was the elephant in the room. No one broached the subject of the ongoing media frenzy, instead, people congratulated Clinton on the high ratings his speech had received. As only Clinton could do, he chuckled half to himself, “Hell of a way to raise a crowd.”
President Obama delivers his SOTU Tuesday evening with no salacious scandal tempting people to tune in, low expectations for what he can achieve with Congress this year and skepticism over whether he can reset his presidency to capture some of the lost promise of the last year.
So what lessons can history provide for giving an effective and memorable SOTU? Ironically, it isn’t always what’s said from the podium:
Whose Line Is It Anyway? Clinton got catchy in 1996 when he said, “The era of big government is over,” a line that telegraphed his move to the political center and set the stage for his reelection ten months later. President George W. Bush scored one for the history books when he labeled Iran, Iraq and North Korea “the axis of evil,” laying the predicate for the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
Holding Out For a Hero: President Reagan initiated the practice of honoring American heroes at the SOTU when he invited Lenny Skutnick to sit with Nancy Reagan in the First Lady’s box. Skutnick was a government worker who had plunged into the icy Potomac to rescue victims of a plane crash. Every president since has made the most of the symbolism these honored guests convey. Among Obama’s guests Tuesday night are survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing, the District of Columbia’s teacher of the year, and NBA player Jason Collins who last year became the first male player in a major American team sport to announce he was openly gay.
What’s The Big Idea? Just as memorable lines are scarce in SOTUs, so are sweeping policy initiatives. No recent president can compare to LBJ’s 1964 declaration of “unconditional war on poverty.” It ushered in Medicare and Medicaid, along with food stamps, mainstays of today’s social safety net. FDR’s embrace of Four Freedoms in his 1941 SOTU, the freedom of speech and worship, and the freedom from want and fear, still stands as a guidepost for framing a visionary agenda. If only Obama would borrow a page from FDR and frame Obamacare as freedom from untreated illness and bankruptcy.
Clash of the Titans: In his 2010 SOTU, Obama criticized the Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling, saying it would open the floodgates for unregulated money, including from foreign corporations. Cameras caught a grim-faced Justice Alito sitting in the chamber and appearing to mouth, “Not true.” Republicans and Democrats disagree over who stepped over the line, Obama in what he said, or Alito in his response.
“These things can get down to junior high level,” says Pat Buchanan, who worked for Presidents Nixon and Reagan as a speechwriter and top advisor. He recalls how the Democrats used to wait for a comment by Reagan, which appeared to endorse their ideological view, “and they would all rise together and cheer, with the Gipper looking nonplused at what was going on.”
Oh No He Didn’t! In his final SOTU in 1974, President Nixon meant to declare, “We must replace the discredited welfare system.” Instead, in an apparent Freudian slip, he said, “We must replace the discredited president.” He then declared, “one year of Watergate is enough,” calling upon Congress to end the investigation. Nixon’s approval rating at the time was 26 percent and he would be gone by summer, forced to resign rather than face impeachment. His successor, Gerald Ford, a veteran of Congress, told his former colleagues in his 1975 SOTU, “The state of the Union is not good: Millions of Americans are out of work. Recession and inflation are eroding the money of millions more. Prices are too high, and sales are too slow.” It was the most downbeat assessment in modern times.
Pay No Mind to The Men Behind the Curtain: With so many lawmakers in the room, it’s hard not to get distracted said Buchanan, who helped fashion many SOTUs for the commanders he served. “One of the problems we faced…was that Dutch would be knocked off his message when the sitting members of Congress would all turn the pages of his speech—the written text of which had been sent to [the] Speaker’s office beforehand. We debated over how to withhold the text, so they could not…all turn the pages at the same time, and knock the Gipper off his rhythm.”
You Never Know What You’re Gonna Get: For Buchanan, the most memorable SOTU is the one that had to be postponed. At noon that day in January 1986, as Buchanan was hosting the network anchors at the traditional lunch in the Roosevelt Room before the president arrived to give a summary of what he would say, an aide rushed in and said, “The shuttle blew up!” Buchanan went right to the oval office to tell Reagan the news. “Isn’t that the one with the teacher on it?” the president responded.
Together with the president, aides went into the room next to the Oval Office and watched the videotape of the explosion being run again and again. After some discussion, they concluded they had to cancel that evening’s SOTU, and that Peggy Noonan should write the speech for Reagan to deliver that same day to the country. It was one of his finest. “The following week we did the delayed SOTU, but [I] cannot even recall what was said,” Buchanan wrote in his e-mail. “Am sure you can get it on the web.”