James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Some State of the Union Trivia

by James M. Lindsay
January 24, 2012

President Obama prepares to deliver his first State of the Union address in 2010 (Tim Sloan/courtesy Reuters). President Obama prepares to deliver his first State of the Union address in 2010 (Tim Sloan/courtesy Reuters).

If you are wondering how much time to set aside to watch tonight’s State of the Union address, figure on about one hour and five minutes. And if you are also wondering about the over/under on the number of words President Obama will use in his speech, go with 7,304. That’s what he averaged in his first two State of the Union addresses. (Yes, people do indeed track both how long it takes a president to deliver the State of the Union address and how many words he uses doing it.) And if you were thinking (or as I have written) that Obama has given three State of the Union addresses, his 2009 address was technically an address to a joint session of Congress. I’ll leave it to better minds to explain the difference.

Here are some other fun facts about the State of the Union address:

  • Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution stipulates that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.” The Constitution says nothing about when the president should deliver the information or how he should deliver it.
  • George Washington delivered the first State of the Union Address in New York City on January 8, 1790. Why New York? Because it was the capital of the United States from 1785 to 1790.
  • George Washington and John Adams delivered their State of the Union messages to Congress in person.
  • Every president from Thomas Jefferson to William Howard Taft sent his State of the Union message to Congress in the form of a letter. (The Monroe Doctrine was announced in a State of the Union message.)
  • Woodrow Wilson revived the tradition of Washington and Adams and delivered his 1913 State of the Union as an address to a joint session of Congress.
  • Jimmy Carter in 1981 was the last president to deliver the State of the Union as a written message.
  • George Washington’s first State of the Union message in 1790 was also the shortest on record. It ran only 1,089 words.
  • Jimmy Carter’s 1981 State of the Union message was the longest. It ran an astounding 33,667 words.
  • Until 1934, the State of the Union message was typically delivered in December rather than January.
  • Among presidents since Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon holds the record for shortest State of the Union speech. His 1972 address clocked in at a shade under 29 minutes.
  • Among presidents since Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton holds the record for the longest State of the Union speech. He took nearly one-and-a-half hours to complete his final State of the Union Address in 2000.
  • Calvin Coolidge was the first president to have his State of the Union message broadcast by radio (1923).
  • Harry S. Truman was the first president to have his State of the Union message broadcast on television (1947).
  • Bill Clinton was the first president to have his State of the Union message broadcast over the Internet (1997).

I’ll be back tomorrow with a post-mortem on the speech.

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