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Public Reaction to the State of the Union...in 1913

On December 2, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson delivered the first "message to Congress" in person since the last President to do so, John Adams, in 1799. President Thomas Jefferson, who followed Adams, eschewed the practice, believing it too reminiscent of Britain's monarchical tradition. 

Often we in Washington view tradition as inviolable; however, the dynamic nature of the powers that govern our leadership actually allow for considerable deviance—and the public seems to enjoy it. I couldn't find commentary on Mr. Jefferson's decision to mail it in, though I was able to look up the public reaction to Mr. Wilson's breech. The most remarkable aspect was concern for his message's length and anticipation for how Mr. Wilson would reconcile his love of brevity and what was traditionally a rather long statement. 

Said The Washington Post (Nov. 27, 1913): "The President's first general message to Congress, as unofficially outlined, will be no less notable for its departures from the beaten path than for what it may contain.... In all likelihood we shall be treated to the briefest paper of the kind ever submitted to Congress." 

The New York Times expressed similar sentiment under the headline "WILSON TO READ MESSAGE: President’s First Annual Address Likely to be Brief":

WASHINGTON, Nov. 13.—President Wilson intends to go to the Capitol when the regular session of Congress convenes in December and read his first annual address in person. He made this known to-day. While it will be nothing new for Mr. Wilson to address Congress, a good deal of curiosity exists as to how he will condense the usually voluminous annual written message into a comparatively brief speech.

In the past, annual messages have been very bulky affairs, some of them containing as many as 15,000 words. As a rule they have begun with a summary of foreign affairs, and have then taken up the needs of the various departments of the executive government, and devoted considerable space to general recommendations of policy. Mr. Wilson, however, does not relish long documents of this sort, and it is probable that his annual message, or address, as it must now be called, will require a good deal less than an hour’s time in delivery.

It is considered likely that he will deal briefly with the chief subjects upon which he believes Congress should act at the reular session, leaving it to the annual reports of the Cabinet officiers to reflect his views on department matters. 

Presciently, the Post heralded the change in how the government had come to embrace the public in its practical function: "Time was when the government grind mostly found its way into print only through the medium of these annual reports to Congress, but nowadays the publicity bureaus spread the information broadcast from day to day, thereby keeping the reading public promptly and fully informed." 

In light of the circus surrounding today's State of the Union Address, the Post's somewhat off-handed comment seems rather quaint and idealistic—especially when considering how we've gone from concern over 15,000 words to worrying about 140 characters.

Reader Comments (1)

Seth, I love the conclusion. chuck

January 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterchuck conconi

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