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Messages memorable and forgettable

The State of the Union address through history

By Bruce Morton
CNN Washington Bureau

Article II, Section III:
Article II, Section III: "He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union..."

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CNN's special team coverage of the State of the Union address continues after the address Tuesday evening. 

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Constitution is why we have the speech: "He (the Prez) shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union...."

George Washington delivered the first one, in 1790, in New York, which was the capital then. Thomas Jefferson, the third president, decided not to deliver the speech in person -- too royal, he thought (and in fact it does come from the speech the king or queen delivers each year to Parliament). He sent a written message, and so did every president for more than 100 years, until Woodrow Wilson did it in person in 1913.

Some of those written messages made history. James Monroe outlined the Monroe Doctrine -- European countries, stay out of this hemisphere -- in one, and Abraham Lincoln, who could write some, freed the slaves in one: "In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free -- honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve."

Calvin Coolidge in 1923 delivered the first State of the Union broadcast on radio, though it was Franklin Roosevelt who coined the phrase "State of the Union," and in 1941 used the speech to announce the Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, of worship, freedom from want and from fear -- goals the world still seeks.

Harry Truman did the first televised State of the Union, though it was Lyndon Johnson, who liked being on TV, who moved the speech to prime time in 1965. The official response by the other party -- the Democrats this year, of course -- started the next year, in 1966.

Some of the speeches have been memorable; this President Bush used the phrase "axis of evil" in his address last year. But many have simply been laundry lists of bills presidents wanted Congresses to pass.

Most unusual speeches? You have to give Bill Clinton the prize for that. In 1997, the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced the same night, and some networks showed a split screen -- O.J., and Rep. J.C. Watts delivering the Republican response.

George Washington delivered the State of the Union message aloud.
George Washington delivered the State of the Union message aloud.

The next year, Clinton's speech came just after we all learned who Monica Lewinsky was. And the year after that, 1999, Clinton spoke to a House of Representatives which had impeached him and a Senate which had just begun to try him on those charges.

It was a challenge for the Congress: how to behave?

"I'd rather go to the dentist," huffed Rep. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, "but I'm going."

This year? We'll soon know.

-- Bruce Morton is CNN national political correspondent

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