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A Brief History of the State of the Union

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President Obama is slated to let Congress (and the rest of us) know how the country's doing in the State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Here are the answers to a few questions that might come up when the address storms every channel of your television.

Why does the President give a State of the Union address to Congress every year?

The address can trace its roots back to the Constitution. Article II, Section 3, Clause 1 of the Constitution says that the President "shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."

Isn't that a pretty vague order?

"From time to time" leaves the question of frequency open to interpretation, but George Washington helped cement the State of the Union as an annual event after he gave the first State of the Union address at Federal Hall in New York City in January 1790.

Since there wasn't much of a blueprint for Washington, he praised the 1st Congress' work and outlined a brief legislative plan for the upcoming year. In this way, Washington's address bore some resemblance to the one President Obama will give tonight. On the other hand, Washington's goals were a bit different from national health care; he wanted to work on the army, build post roads, and develop uniform systems of currency, weights, and measures.

What if a President didn't love public speaking?

You'll notice that the order from Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution doesn't say anything about a speech; the President just has to keep Congress informed of what's going on in the country. When Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, he decided that the idea of showing up before Congress to deliver a grand address sounded like something a monarch would do, so he decided to bag the speech. Instead, he wrote down an annual message and sent it to Congress, where a clerk read it aloud to the assembled legislators.

Would a politician really skip a chance to give a big speech?

Apparently Presidents don't love giving long speeches any more than the rest of us do, because Jefferson's successors jumped on this new system. For over a century, every President opted to keep Congress informed through a written message rather than a spoken one; these messages were generally full of long, exhaustive administrative and budget reports rather than rousing political rhetoric.

Woodrow Wilson finally revived the old practice of delivering a speech in 1913. Even then, Presidents haven't always appeared to give a speech. Since the 1913 revival of the practice, 22 State of the Union reports have come in written form, most recently Reagan's 1989 report.

Who are all of the people crammed into the front of the House Chamber?

It's a big crowd for the State of the Union. In addition to the members of Congress, the President usually has the Justices of the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his cabinet seated at the front of the audience.

Who won't be there?

At least one member of President Obama's cabinet. Since the Cold War, one member of the cabinet has holed up in an undisclosed secure location during big government gatherings like the State of the Union address and presidential inaugurations. This absent member is dubbed the "designated survivor." In the unlikely event that an attack or a disaster leads to the deaths of all of the assembled leaders, having a designated survivor hiding out somewhere safe maintains the line of presidential succession.

Since 2005 a few members of Congress have also stayed away from big events so there would be at least a tiny legislature remaining in the event of a disaster.

When did the State of the Union address become must-see TV?

LBJ-1965-SOTU

President Truman actually gave the first televised State of the Union in 1947, but it didn't become a primetime spectacle until 1965. Lyndon B. Johnson decided to give his address in the evening that year, while previous addresses had generally taken place during the day. At the time, LBJ was trying to sell Americans on his civil rights reforms and Great Society plans, so he decided to give the address at night in order to reach the widest possible audience. The trick worked, and it was the first State of the Union address to be televised during the evening.

Can a President opt out of giving a State of the Union address?

reagan-SOTU

Sort of. It doesn't really make a lot of sense for a newly inaugurated president to deliver a State of the Union address after only having been in office for a few days. Since Ronald Reagan's first term started in 1981, new presidents have opted to give a somewhat more specialized address—everyone but George H.W. Bush in 1989 has spoken mostly about the economy—to a joint session of Congress. Although these speeches are accompanied by the familiar pomp and circumstance, they're not technically State of the Union addresses.

Who started the parade of honored guests?

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Could such a Hollywood flourish have come from anyone other than Ronald Reagan? His 1982 address was the first to feature personal guests that the President publicly recognized over the course of his speech. Openly gay NBA veteran Jason Collins and two survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing were among 2014's guests. This year, be on the lookout for former Cuba prisoner Alan Gross and astronaut Scott Kelly.

Notable guests from past events include 12-year-old music prodigy Tyrone Ford (1986), baseball sluggers Sammy Sosa (1999) and Hank Aaron (2000), Baby Einstein founder Julie Aigner-Clark (2007), and NBA star Dikembe Mutombo (2007).

What's the story with the opposition party's response right after the address?

In 1966, television networks offered the Republican Party a half-hour slot for a rebuttal of LBJ's address. Senator Everett Dirksen and Representative Gerald Ford made counterarguments to Johnson's comments. Since 1976, the opposition's response has been slotted in directly behind the State of the Union. This year, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa will deliver the Republican response.

Who gave the longest address in history?

According to the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, Harry Truman takes that prize with a 1946 speech—over 25,000 words. (To give you an idea of how long that is, the average modern address is in the neighborhood of 5,000 words.) George Washington wins the award for brevity; his first address in 1790 was just 833 words long.

A version of this post originally appeared in 2010.

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Medicine
Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

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History
On This Day in 1983, Sally Ride Made History
NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

Thirty-five years ago today, on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She flew on the space shuttle Challenger on a six-day mission. She had previously helped build the shuttle's robot arm, and now she operated it in space. Not only was she the first American woman to go to space, she was the youngest astronaut in space, at age 32.

(As with many space-related firsts, that "American" qualifier is important. The Soviet space program had sent two women cosmonauts into space well in advance of Ride. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova flew all the way back in 1963, and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. They also sent various younger people to space, including Tereshkova.)

Ride represented a change in the previously completely male astronaut program. Although NASA had unofficially tested women in the late 1950s as part of the Mercury program, the idea of sending women into space was quickly discarded. NASA policy for decades was that only men would be considered as astronauts. It took until 1978 for NASA to change the policy—that year, six women became astronauts: Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Kathryn Sullivan, Anna Fisher, Margaret Rhea Seddon, and Shannon Lucid.

Ride and her colleagues were subject to an endless barrage of sexist media questions, curious how women might fare in space. They also encountered institutional sexism at NASA itself. Ride recalled:

"The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want makeup—so they designed a makeup kit. A makeup kit brought to you by NASA engineers. ... You can just imagine the discussions amongst the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a makeup kit."

Ride held a Ph.D. in astrophysics, two bachelor's degrees (English and physics), and had served as CapCom (Capsule Communicator) for the second and third shuttle flights, STS-2 and -3. She was an accomplished pilot and athlete, as well as a Presbyterian elder. She was closely connected to Challenger, performing two missions on it and losing four fellow members of her 1978 class when it exploded.

After her astronaut career concluded, Ride served on both the Challenger and Columbia disaster review panels. During the former, she leaked vital information about the Challenger disaster (o-ring engineering reports), though this wasn't broadly known until after her death. She wrote educational books and founded Sally Ride Science. She was asked to head up NASA by the Clinton administration, but declined.

Ride died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer. Her obituary made news for quietly mentioning that she was survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy. Although Ride had come out to her family and close friends, the obituary was the first public statement that she was gay. It was also the first time most people found out she'd suffered from pancreatic cancer at all; she asked that donations in her memory be made to a fund devoted to studying that form of cancer.

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