Uh, “… in resuming your consultations for the general good …” yada yada “… and to secure the blessings which a gracious Providence has placed within our reach …” et cetera and so forth, ummm … “Among the many interesting objects, which will engage your attention, that of providing for the common defense will merit particular regard …”
What isn’t throat-clearing or platitudinous nevertheless bears Washington’s customary comportment, his humility and reserve. In a thoroughly passive voice, he offers only “reason to hope” that tribal attacks on the frontier will be attended to; he suffices to “trust” that Congress will employ “all proper means” to promote agriculture and commerce; he merely “cannot forbear intimating” his belief that “due attention” be paid to building new postal roads.
Read: The State of the Union is unrecognizable
Ten years later, President Thomas Jefferson’s first State of the Union address swelled to some 3,200 words and had a little more sex appeal, including punchy descriptions of the U.S.S. Enterprise’s successes off the Barbary Coast. But Jefferson also famously began the practice, uninterrupted for a century hence, of delivering the State of the Union as a letter to be read by House and Senate clerks, thinking an in-person address unpalatably kingly.
Jefferson, a populist, nevertheless had his good points, and that was one of them.
When the 45th president gives his second State of the Union (now scheduled for February 5), he will doubtless stay clear of reserve and humility, and include at least one brute imperative: “Build the wall.” Or at least “Build the wall or steel barrier.” Or maybe “Build wall” if you’re into Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen’s whole brevity thing.
Another safe bet is that his SOTU will be long. Much longer than Washington’s or Jefferson’s. Last year’s address was more than 5,000 words and took an hour and 20 minutes to deliver.
Historically, it has been Democratic presidents who have liked the sound of their own voice best. The Congressional Research Service has the data: In the years since the State of the Union has been televised, you’ll be shocked to know that one William Jefferson Clinton gave the longest speech by delivery time, an hour and 29 minutes for his 2000 swan song; and that Clinton’s 1995 address was the longest in-person speech by word count, at 9,190. In 1981, Jimmy Carter delivered only a written message on his way out the door, but it smashed the word-count record, at 33,667, or roughly one Chronicle of Narnia. By contrast, the Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan delivered the shortest addresses of the era, taking just 29 and 31 minutes in 1972 and 1986, respectively.
Read: Nancy Pelosi’s power move on the State of the Union
In fact, all of the presidents who did the most to enlarge and embellish the State of the Union were Democrats. Woodrow Wilson revived the in-person delivery and dispensed with the notion that the speech should be a report on the executive departments and not a rallying cry for the president’s agenda. After “Cool” Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover reverted to written messages, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered 11 of his norm-shattering 12 State of the Union addresses in person, all broadcast over the radio. Harry Truman’s 1947 speech was the first to appear on television. And Barack Obama (with an assist from Associate Justice Samuel Alito) at last pulled the judiciary branch into the whole sorry circus that the event had by that time become.