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What Do Presidents Say in State of the Union Addresses When the News Is Gloomy?

NB:  This article was published on January 26, 2007.

Last week HNN intern Caleb Miller explained how U.S. Presidents break bad news in times of war. But how do they handle bad news in their state of the union addresses? Do they still insist that the state of our union is strong? In 1975 President Gerald Ford said frankly,"the state of the Union is not good." This was a rare moment of candor in the history of the presidency. Most of the time presidents find a way to sugarcoat the truth.

In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, just a week and a half before the Tet Offensive, Lyndon Johnson told Americans that "our country is challenged, at home and abroad." Saying we faced challenges was more politic than saying the war was a mess. As always Americans want the truth, but not too much truth. If a president can ladle the truth out sparingly, he will.

In 1970 Richard Nixon said that we were making progress in Vietnam. In 1973 he announced we were at peace in Vietnam and everywhere around the world ("We enter 1973 economically strong, militarily secure and, most important of all, at peace after a long and trying war.") In 1974 he repeated the claim. Oddly, seemingly forgetting what he had said the year before, Nixon stated: "Tonight, for the first time in 12 years, a President of the United States can report to the Congress on the state of a Union at peace with every nation of the world."

After Pearl Harbor FDR praised the spirit of Americans in the face of the Japanese attack. After the Wall Street Crash Herbert Hoover insisted that the depression has given Americans an opportunity to prove themselves and we had ("our country is more alive to its problems of moral and spiritual welfare"). Lincoln after the onset of the Civil War mainly stuck to a recitation of the facts of war but ended on hope, noting that the census showed that we had grown eight fold since our founding and increased our wealth many times over. He added: "The struggle of to-day is not altogether for to-day; it is for a vast future also. With a reliance on Providence all the more firm and earnest, let us proceed in the great task which events have devolved upon us." After the British burned the capitol in the War of 1812 James Madison observed that the enemy had since beat a hasty retreat "as precipitate as his attempts were bold and fortunate."

What will President Bush say this week? He is being advised by some pundits to speak the truth and say how bad things are. This would be refreshing. But don't hold your breath. It would be out of character for this president. Which is too bad. We could use unvarnished truth. He has nothing to lose. Why not try it? It would at least be memorable.

GLOOMY 1970's: Gerald Ford, State of the Union (1975)

Twenty-six years ago, a freshman Congressman, a young fellow with lots of idealism who was out to change the world, stood before Sam Rayburn in the well of the House and solemnly swore to the same oath that all of you took yesterday--an unforgettable experience, and I congratulate you all.

Two days later, that same freshman stood at the back of this great Chamber--over there someplace--as President Truman, all charged up by his single-handed election victory, reported as the Constitution requires on the state of the Union.

When the bipartisan applause stopped, President Truman said, "I am happy to report to this 81st Congress that the state of the Union is good. Our Nation is better able than ever before to meet the needs of the American people, and to give them their fair chance in the pursuit of happiness. [It] is foremost among the nations of the world in the search for peace."

Today, that freshman Member from Michigan stands where Mr. Truman stood, and I must say to you that the state of the Union is not good: Millions of Americans are out of work. Recession and inflation are eroding the money of millions more. Prices are too high, and sales are too slow. This year's Federal deficit will be about $30 billion; next year's probably $45 billion. The national debt will rise to over $500 billion. Our plant capacity and productivity are not increasing fast enough. We depend on others for essential energy. Some people question their Government's ability to make hard decisions and stick with them; they expect Washington politics as usual.

Yet, what President Truman said on January 5, 1949, is even more true in 1975. We are better able to meet our people's needs. All Americans do have a fairer chance to pursue happiness. Not only are we still the foremost nation in the pursuit of peace but today's prospects of attaining it are infinitely brighter.

VIETNAM: Lyndon Johnson, State of the Union (1968)

I have come once again to this Chamber--the home of our democracy--to give you, as the Constitution requires, "Information of the State of the Union."

I report to you that our country is challenged, at home and abroad:

--that it is our will that is being tried, not our strength; our sense of purpose, not our ability to achieve a better America;

--that we have the strength to meet our every challenge; the physical strength to hold the course of decency and compassion at home; and the moral strength to support the cause of peace in the world.

And I report to you that I believe, with abiding conviction, that this people--nurtured by their deep faith, tutored by their hard lessons, moved by their high aspirations--have the will to meet the trials that these times impose.

Since I reported to you last January:

--Three elections have been held in Vietnam--in the midst of war and under the constant threat of violence.

--A President, a Vice President, a House and Senate, and village officials have been chosen by popular, contested ballot.

--The enemy has been defeated in battle after battle.

--The number of South Vietnamese living in areas under Government protection tonight has grown by more than a million since January of last year.

These are all marks of progress. Yet:

--The enemy continues to pour men and material across frontiers and into battle, despite his continuous heavy losses.

--He continues to hope that America's will to persevere can be broken. Well--he is wrong. America will persevere. Our patience and our perseverance will match our power. Aggression will never prevail.

VIETNAM: Richard Nixon, State of the Union (1970)

The State of the Union Address is traditionally an occasion for a lengthy and detailed account by the President of what he has accomplished in the past, what he wants the Congress to do in the future, and, in an election year, to lay the basis for the political issues which might be decisive in the fall.

Occasionally there comes a time when profound and far-reaching events command a break with tradition.

This is such a time.

I say this not only because 1970 marks the beginning of a new decade in which America will celebrate its 200th birthday. I say it because new knowledge and hard experience argue persuasively that both our programs and our institutions in America need to be reformed.

The moment has arrived to harness the vast energies and abundance of this land to the creation of a new American experience, an experience richer and deeper and more truly a reflection of the goodness and grace of the human spirit....

The major immediate goal of our foreign policy is to bring an end to the war in Vietnam in a way that our generation will be remembered--not so much as the generation that suffered in war, but more for the fact that we had the courage and character to win the kind of a just peace that the next generation was able to keep.

We are making progress toward that goal.

The prospects for peace are far greater today than they were a year ago.

PEARL HARBOR: Franklin Roosevelt, State of the Union (1942)

IN FULFILLING my duty to report upon the State of the Union, I am proud to say to you that the spirit of the American people was never higher than it is today—the Union was never more closely knit together—this country was never more deeply determined to face the solemn tasks before it.

The response of the American people has been instantaneous, and it will be sustained until our security is assured.

Exactly one year ago today I said to this Congress: "When the dictators. . . are ready to make war upon us, they will not wait for an act of war on our part. . . . They—not we—will choose the time and the place and the method of their attack."

We now know their choice of the time: a peaceful Sunday morning— December 7, 1941.

We know their choice of the place: an American outpost in the Pacific.

We know their choice of the method: the method of Hitler himself.

WALL STREET CRASH: Herbert Hoover, State of the Union Address (1930)

Substantial progress has been made during the year in national peace and security; the fundamental strength of the Nation's economic life is unimpaired; education and scientific discovery have made advances; our country is more alive to its problems of moral and spiritual welfare.

During the past 12 months we have suffered with other Nations from economic depression.

ONSET OF THE CIVIL WAR: Abraham Lincoln, State of the Union Address (1861)

In the midst of unprecedented political troubles we have cause of great gratitude to God for unusual good health and most abundant harvests.

You will not be surprised to learn that in the peculiar exigencies of the times our intercourse with foreign nations has been attended with profound solicitude, chiefly turning upon our own domestic affairs.

A disloyal portion of the American people have during the whole year been engaged in an attempt to divide and destroy the Union. A nation which endures factious domestic division is exposed to disrespect abroad, and one party, if not both, is sure sooner or later to invoke foreign intervention.

Nations thus tempted to interfere are not always able to resist the counsels of seeming expediency and ungenerous ambition, although measures adopted under such influences seldom fail to be unfortunate and injurious to those adopting them....

From the first taking of our national census to the last are seventy years, and we find our population at the end of the period eight times as great as it was at the beginning. The increase of those other things which men deem desirable has been even greater. We thus have at one view what the popular principle, applied to Government through the machinery, of the States and the Union, has produced in a given time, and also what if firmly maintained it promises for the future. There are already among us those who if the Union be preserved will live to see it contain 250,000,000. The struggle of to-day is not altogether for to-day; it is for a vast future also. With a reliance on Providence all the more firm and earnest, let us proceed in the great task which events have devolved upon us.

WAR OF 1812: James Madison, State of the Union Address (1814)

Notwithstanding the early day which had been fixed for your session of the present year, I was induced to call you together still sooner, as well that any inadequacy in the existing provisions for the wants of the Treasury might be supplied as that no delay might happen in providing for the result of the negotiations on foot with Great Britain, whether it should require arrangements adapted to a return of peace or further and more effective provisions for prosecuting the war....

In the events of the present campaign the enemy, with all his augmented means and wanton use of them, has little ground for exultation, unless he can feel it in the success of his recent enterprises against this metropolis and the neighboring town of Alexandria, from both of which his retreats were as precipitate as his attempts were bold and fortunate. In his other incursions on our Atlantic frontier his progress, often checked and chastised by the martial spirit of the neighboring citizens, has had more effect in distressing individuals and in dishonoring his arms than in promoting any object of legitimate warfare; and in the two instances mentioned, however deeply to be regretted on our part, he will find in his transient success, which interrupted for a moment only the ordinary public business at the seat of Government, no compensation for the loss of character with the world by his violations of private property and by his destruction of public edifices protected as monuments of the arts by the laws of civilized warfare.