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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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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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