“One of the hardest things to get right is that one line where you describe, ‘The state of our union is — blank,’ and how you fill in that blank,” Donald A. Baer, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, told The New York Times this weekend. This is false. We already know how President Obama will describe the state of our union in his State of the Union address Tuesday: strong. Baer must not have listened to his boss’s speeches that he wrote because it was Clinton who codified the presidential tradition of saying simply, “The state of our union is strong” in every single State of the Union speech. By 2003, The Atlantic‘s James Fallows pointed out that the build up to the-state-of-our-union-is-strong moment was as predictable but as crowd-pleasing as the Terminator’s “I’ll be back.” George W. Bush and Barack Obama may not agree on much, but neither has wavered from the tradition, daring only to vary the phrase by dabbling in tense changes or superlatives.
You can see the tradition evolve. A straight-up “the state of our union is [blank]” was rare; Lyndon Johnson used all kinds of flowery language. Presidents would make statements that now look meek– “stronger than a year ago” — or they were conditional — the union will be strong if we follow my agenda. By Richard Nixon, whose failure to say “the state of our union is [something good]” was a sign of political trouble, or in Jimmy Carter’s case, a sign of economic hardship. Moody reflections often preceded presidents’ losing reelection. By the time of George W. Bush’s 2002 speech, no act or terrorism or recession could prevent the union from being declared strong. Here’s how the state of the union became a cliché.
John F. Kennedy, 1963: “…I can report to you that the state of this old but youthful Union, in the 175th year of its life, is good.”
Lyndon Johnson, 1964: If we fail… then history will rightfully judge us harshly. But if we succeed, if we can achieve these goals by forging in this country a greater sense of union, then, and only then, can we take full satisfaction in the State of the Union.”
Johnson, 1965: This, then, is the state of the Union: Free and restless, growing and full of hope.”
Johnson, 1966: “This is the State of the Union,” Johnson said, listing a bunch of stuff. His speech was a bit of a downer: “Yet, finally, war is always the same… to know war is to know that there is still madness in this world.”
Johnson, 1967: No clear “state of” moment. Johnson did not run for reelection.
Johnson, 1968: “Several of these goals are going to be very hard to reach. But the State of our Union will be much stronger 8 years from now on our 200th birthday if we resolve to reach these goals now.”
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