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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration Officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Richard Norton Smith

Richard Norton Smith
Hi it is good to be here on this Martin Luther King day. I look forward to taking your questions.

Steven, from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida writes:
Good afternoon, Mr. Smith Welcome to the greatest implementation of ideas that has come from our administration... "Ask The Whitehouse."

I as a historian, strongly believe in having a voice in government, and would like to know... if I am to give history lessons to our citizens, would it be best to start with the Revolutionary Period, or should I start with the history of what our Countries Founding Fathers envisioned for us as One Nation Under God?

Richard Norton Smith
A very large question. I wouldn't presume to advise any teacher what to teach or where to define America's beginnings. I suppose, being a native of New England, I start with Plymouth in 1620. Which certainly does open the door to the nation's spiritual origins , which, in turn lead naturally into a political, social, and economic trend lines up to an including the revolution.

Someone else could fault me for being too English-centric - after all, there is a century of more of American history in points distant from New England or the East coast.

Zach, from Sullivan writes:
Has any president ever gone to the House chambers to rehearse the speech?

Richard Norton Smith
No, not that I'm aware of. Today Presidents tend to rehearse at Camp David. Rehearsing, like so much else, is largely a product of the television age. Not so many years ago, in fact as recently as LBJ's time, the State of the Union was a daytime event not the bigtime--the media circus that it has come today

It is true that Presidents spend an enormous amount of preparation on the speech. Richard Nixon, for example, prior to his 1971 State of the Union address commissioned a number of public opinion polls which told him of growing environmental awareness and he surprised many by emphasizing the environment in that message out of which came the EPA among other initiatives.

Dennis, from Branson writes:
Has any president ever forsaken his notes while giving the State of the Union address, and "went free-style"?

Richard Norton Smith
Good question. As a matter of fact, in recent memory, Bill Clinton in his first State of the Union address was forced to ad-lib when the teleprompter actually carried an old speech draft. The wrong speech was put up there and it was a measure of his skills as an impromptu speaker and no one ever guessed what was going on until later.

But no, these tend to be, particularly in the TV age, they are very carefully choreographed, finely tuned speeches. Actors on stage rather improvise neither do presidents.

Andrew, from U.S.A. writes:
Some of the State of the Union addresses in recent administrations have been quite lengthy. How is this compared to earlier administration's such as President's Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe?

Richard Norton Smith
Another good question. You have to remember that Washington in particular was not comfortable as a public speaker -- neither was Jefferson.

It has been theorized that one reason that Jefferson halted the practice of delivering the speeches in person was because of his discomfort with public oratory.

For most of our history the State of the Union address was not called that -- it was the annual message delivered not in January but in December when Congress convened. In Washington's time when he spoke they tended to be quite brief in comparison with modern presidents.

Teddy Roosevelt holds the records with 20,000 words in his first message. Truman sent a 16,000 word message for his first time out of the box. TR's message was not delivered by TR -- it was delivered by a clerk and was 2 1/2 hours long.

Liz, from DC writes:
What are the main writing strategies that White House speechwriters use in composing the State of the Union?

How can these writing strategies be applied to my personal and academic writing?

Richard Norton Smith
It varies. I've never written an address. Nixon with his famous yellow legal pads, actually wrote drafts on his own of the SOU addresses. He thought it was a vital intellectual function, and an invaluable means a kind of policy making discipline, if you will.

I think in modern White Houses the creation of policy is inseparable from the pursuit of politics. It is not surprising that a great many people want to have their oar in the water. Some overt political advisors, poll numbers are factored in.

I do remember when I worked with Mrs. Dole at DOT and other people in the Reagan WH, I can assure you long before January, there was a game being played and it goes on in every cabinet department -- people are wondering, "what do we need to do to get in the address?"

Cabinet Officers will be soliciting ideas, catchy phrases, success stories to point to. All in the hopes that they can be fed into the SOU address which is one reason why sometimes these addresses sometimes feel like ten point policy agendas bloated and themeless -- a kind of themeless pudding.

There is a real discipline involved which can come from the President, speechwriters, political advisors, sometimes a combination -- but if you let everyone in DC who wanted a sentence, I can assure you TR's 2 1/2 hours would be easily surpassed.

It is an active definition for the country and the administration and definitions are achieved through editing not expansion.

Steven, from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida US ofA writes:
Good Afternoon, Mr. Smith Does a Historian work in the office on a national holiday? Or do you have a wireless network card, and are currently sitting in the Keys sipping on a nice cool drink?

I was wondering if you could answer the question of how do we get back to the fundamentals of where our country was invisioned to be set on a path for?

Richard Norton Smith
First of all, this historian is in his office in the Abraham Lincoln's Presidential library -- work in progress.

In a sense, every state of union address is an opportunity to return to fundamentals, one of those ceremonial links with our origins that actually precedes the first President. You may or may not know that for 100 years or more, every President from Jefferson to Theodore Roosevelt did not deliver the speech in person but rather sent a written copy by White House clerk. The reason for this was the concern, first-voiced by Jefferson, that for a President to personally deliver his annual message was too reminiscent of the speech from the throne - and the very monarchy to which Jefferson and his contemporaries took violent exception.

Mark, from Australia writes:
Is it true that Abraham Lincoln's wife Mary attempted to misappropriate money in cahoots with the White House gardener when Lincoln was President?

Richard Norton Smith
Like many things about Lincoln, that is a story that remains under debate. But the fact that it is asked suggests that it has not been disproved.

Lauren, from Cleveland, Ohip writes:
How long does it take to write the State of the Union?

Richard Norton Smith
Well, that also will vary. In the early days, Washington had a distinguished speechwriter -- James Madison. It was a curious circular process that went on in the first congresses. Where again, reminiscent of the speech from the throne, the president would speak -- then be waited upon by a delegation from congress with a formal response to his speech. At which point, he would respond to their response.

The funny thing is Madison wrote all of them. Madison was talking to himself and then some as the president. It was a process that took much less time because you had much less to collate -- much less policy to formulate. Only four government depts., at the state dept Jefferson had two clerks and an annual budget of 8 thousand.

Washington’s government employed fewer people than Washington himself did at Mount Vernon. So you can imagine putting together an annual message -- much simpler and less time consuming process.

Today, as I said earlier, some people in dc at least, begin the process of trying to shape the address months in advance.

The actual writing and rewriting probably goes on for several weeks. I will give an exception. Ford, for his first State of the Union in 1975. First of all he did something no one had ever done and probably for obvious reasons. He got up and said candidly that the state of the union was not good.

He thought he would credit for candor -- he did not. More to the point and as bizarre as it sounds, he was up until 4am personally meshing two rival drafts of the speech. One prepared by Donald Rumsfeld, and the other by the president’s speechwriter, Bob Hartman.

After that experience the board made it very clear to Hartman that it would not be repeated and that important speeches would not be delivered to him the night before it was to be delivered to the public.

Geoff, from Virginia writes:
Can you explain the history of the "Designated Survivor?" When did this process begin, and how is the Cabinet Secretary chosen? Are the top level Cabinet offials (State, Defense, Justice, Treasury) exempt?

Richard Norton Smith
I do not know. I speculate that it might have been in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination but I do not know. A somewhat more recent innovation and that of course is the face in the balcony. That was a Ronald Reagan innovation. People I’m sure can remember back to the early 80s and some of the individuals Reagan wanted to single out for personal heroism, achievements, etc. But he used the address brilliantly to showcase on an individual basis some of the collective policies that he was pursuing or advocating

And every president since has maintained the tradition.

Patricia, from Naperville, IL writes:
Sorry, Mr. Smith. I did not understand I was only addressing you when I wrote my question earlier today. Here instead is a question for you: Which President do find most fascinating and why?

Richard Norton Smith
I have to answer with some weasel words because, I will cite a distinguished source of these words, if you have read David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, you know of his story of visiting the White House during the Kennedy administration and having President Kennedy say with some anger in his voice how unfair it was for historians to make judgments about Presidents without sitting in their place, reviewing the documents which crossed their desks, etc.

Even poor old James Buchanan, whom most of us forgot as one of the least successful presidents.

The flip side is that every president is interesting -- most are fascinating

Washington is a great hero of mine because I think if he had not been willing to sacrifice the last decade of his life, peace of mind and risk his reputation on this untried experiment -- there might not be a presidency or the United States today.

But almost every president can be held up as someone worth studying -- certainly knowing more about them than the stereotypes or the labels that get attached to most historical figures.

Most people today know nothing about James K Polk. Perhaps some in Tennessee know him as " Young H ickory " -- the protege of Andrew Jackson. Some probably vaguely associate him with the Mexican War. Not many people know that he added more territory to the US than any other President.

And to varying degrees this holds true for virtually every one of our chief executives but I.m also biased toward Lincoln and Wilson and Coolidge among others.

Footnote: What did Polk add? For starters, modern day California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona and New Mexico.

Nick, from Pasadena writes:
What has been the most memorable State of the Union speech in your recent memory? Why?

Richard Norton Smith
I’ll go back beyond my recent memory. I’ll give you the most quotable and that is Franklin Roosevelt’s speech in 1941 -- almost a year before Pearl Harbor. FDR laid out the justification for American participation in a war that would as he saw it be more than a war for territory or turf.

We know them as the four freedoms -- freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. And those were in the 1941 state of the union address.

FDR used the SOU address more than many presidents to encapsulate large measures -- in 1935, he launched the 2nd New Deal around security. Out of that congress would come social security. In 1944, he looked to the post war world and talked about an economic bill of rights -- one that would, over time be as important as our political bill of rights. He did not live to see it implemented, but the GI bill of rights is in many ways part of his vision.

jordan, from west chester writes:
which was the only us president, previous to office,who was a preacher.

Richard Norton Smith
I do not know. I am tempted to say James Garfield. A number of presidents have been preacher’s sons. Wilson, of course, we all know, but also Grover Cleveland and others I believe.

Caleb, from Crawfordsville,IN writes:
Mr. Smith what State of the Union speech was the most anticipated by Americans?

Richard Norton Smith
That is a value judgment I suppose. The most electrifying mood in the chamber was in 1998 when Bill Clinton delivered his speech only days after the Lewinsky scandal broke.

And of course, there was the typical Washington speculation about what the president would do given the enormous pressure he was under and the distraction. The president rose to the occasion.

That is when we started talking about compartmentalization. That would be one of the most dramatic settings ever for such an address.

There is also built in drama for a new president any time a new president -- particularly one who becomes one under tragic circumstances.

LBJ was a child of Capitol Hill and well known to his colleagues. Nevertheless, there was real drama in the House chamber when 40 years ago this month, he used the occasion at his first SOU address to declare what he called "unconditional war" on poverty. It was the birth of the "great society" and of course in time there would be another war which would define the Johnson administration and devour the war on poverty.

Three years later, in January 1967, the president returned to the Hill -- he used that SOU address to insist that in effect the nation could afford to fight both wars -- what was known as guns and butter.

If you think of Harry Truman appearing before congress for the first time -- even Calvin Coolidge...

Surprising man Coolidge -- in his first address Coolidge called for an anti-lynching law. He also wanted an amendment to restrict child labor, he wanted a minimum wage for women and along with a tax reduction he wanted to create a federal department of education.

Dillon, from Home writes:
Does a president who is removed or kicked out of office loose his secret


Richard Norton Smith
No. The statue is quite clear. Secret Service protection is for life. Nixon voluntarily chose to dispense with Secret Service protection. He thought he would save taxpayer money and he felt that he wanted his privacy and his family felt the same way. Obviously, if he had sensed any danger, there would have been a different situation.

By contrast, former presidents as you know, been accorded secret service protection -- came after Kennedy

Herbert Hoover, on the day he left office, undoubtedly the most unpopular man in America , took a train to New York and spent the night at the Waldorf -- which received death threats against the President.

A secret serviceman did accompany him to New York but then disappeared.

In the spring of 1933, the most popular song in America was " Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf " -- its popularity was attributed in part to the departure of Herbert hover. He took office as the most revered man for his humanitarian efforts, but that changed.

He had the longest ex-presidency and rebuilt much of his reputation again for his humanitarian work

He had a wonderful line, not long before he died -- he lived to 90 .

A friend asked him how he had managed to survive the long period of ostracism which coincided with the new deal before Harry Truman brought him to public life.

Hoover said, "It is simple, I outlived the bastards." So I recommend longevity as the best revenge. He was a great man -- but not a great president.

James Madison was a great man -- but not a great president. And it works the other way as well. There are great Presidents who are not necessarily great human beings.

In the White House virtue is not necessarily its own reward. Another great Coolidge quote, it was the source of safety to the country and great reassurance to a president personally for him to know that he is not a great man. That.s Coolidge the minimalist.

Elizabeth, from Boston Mass. writes:
Hi ,Richard Norton, I have a Question to ask you?I know The President is going to

give the State of the Union Adress on Tuesday Night..I was wondering what the State of the Union stabds for and Why do Presidents always do the State of the Union Address In the capital Building not in the Whitehouse..Is your

job hard work. Thanks, Elizabeth Kronfeld From Boston ,Mass.

Richard Norton Smith
The title State of the Union is a relative innovation. For most of our history, this speech was a much more prosaic event -- the annual message. It became the State of the Union address about 1945. Why in Congress? Very powerful symbolism. Because it is important for the executive to go before the people's representatives and report on the people's business and to deliver his estimate of the State of the Union and that really goes to the heart of the American experiment in popular government where an executive is ultimately accountable to the people and to the elected reps.

If it were the other way around, the President in the East Room giving a speech, you couldn't fit all of Congress there .

Presidents have tried to get around this device.

The last time a President did not go to Cap Hill and deliver the speech in person, was in 1973. Richard Nixon sent up a written report. The excuse was is that it was the same month that he was giving the inaugural address, but that had not precluded other Presidents in similar state from appearing in person .

Nixon did not like the rituals surrounding the SOU -- he was always tinkering with it. One year he wanted 2 speeches -- a SOU and on the State of the World.

One year he sent a written message (1973).

Nixon was always looking for great slogans, something that people would march behind.

Bill Safire , a speechwriter for the President, came up with The New American Revolution -- that was the theme of the 1971 address. 1971 was the year before the election and the President always wants to define the agenda leading up to his reelection. What came out of the 1971 speech that we should remember was a program called revenue sharing.

Nixon wanted to begin the process of reversing the flow of power, dollars and decisions to washington that had commenced 40 years earlier with the New Deal . In fact, if you look at the history of the last 30 years, you can argue that process is real , ongoing, it is a theme that runs through all of the Presidencies.

So the notion of decentralizing government, returning power back to , block grants, revenue sharing, really does vindicate what Nixon called his New American Revolution.

Richard Norton Smith
I have no idea what the President will call for in tomorrow night's speech but if the past is any guide there will be at least one surprise -- who today told that tax cuts and a department of public welfare were first called for in the STate of the Union addresses of Warren Harding and John Kennedy would guess which called for which? In fact it was JFK in 1963 who wanted significant tax reductions even at the cost of a larger federal deficit and it was Warren Harding in 1921 who urged Congress to create the nation's first department of public welfare. Last year, as I recall it, President Bush spun his own surprise asking for substantial funds to pursue a hydrogen powered car. Who knows what the President will say tomorrow night. And thank you everyone for some wonderful questions and still more for your interest in this subject, but in White House history. It is enormously encouraging to someone like myself to know that there are a great many people out there who share my interest. I hope you never lose it. EDNOTE: The Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum will open in late 2004 or early 2005.

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