George Washington and John Adams delivered their messages to Congress in person. Washington kept his first speech quite expedient at just 833 words, probably taking about five minutes to deliver. (Imagine all the time left over for post-speech commentary had there only been cable television!) But Thomas Jefferson thought the practice reeked of British monarchy and sent his in writing.
That was the custom for the next century until Woodrow Wilson revived the practice of appearing in person, and even then it was not until Franklin D. Roosevelt that presidents made that the default practice. Calvin Coolidge was the first to have his broadcast on radio in 1923 and Harry Truman the first to have his shown on television in 1947.
But the modern practice most Americans are familiar with began in 1965 when Lyndon B. Johnson moved the address to the evening, at which point it became watched by a broader audience that, in that era at least, had few other options (no “Lost” back then, just “Lost in Space”).
Even in recent times, presidents still occasionally take a pass. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter all sent their final messages in writing. In 1956, when Eisenhower was recuperating from a heart attack, he simply filmed a seven-minute talk from his retreat in Florida.
Richard M. Nixon sent a printed version in 1973, reasoning that his second inaugural address had made his point. Likewise, ever since Ronald Reagan, outgoing presidents in their final weeks in office have chosen not to deliver a State of the Union, while their successors went ahead and addressed Congress without calling them State of the Union speeches, just as Mr. Obama did last year.
Reagan, actually, was the only one in modern times to cancel and reschedule his speech, which he did in 1986 after learning of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, had several occasions where he – or at least his staff – might have wanted to cancel, but went through with it anyway.
Mr. Clinton, after all, surely had some of the most memorable State of the Union experiences. He used his addresses in 1995 and 1996 to reposition himself after the Republican takeover of Congress, declaring that “the era of big government is over.” But by his second term, his State of the Union appearances seemed to turn increasingly surreal with each passing year.
In 1997, he appeared in the House chamber at the same moment a California jury was handing down its verdict in the much-watched civil trial of O.J. Simpson, leading television networks to show the two events in riveting split-screen fashion. It was something of a minor miracle Mr. Clinton was able to proceed anyway, since a last-minute computer glitch had merged his entire text on the teleprompter into a single, indigestible paragraph, leaving panicked aides scrambling to reinsert paragraph breaks.