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US State of Union Address Has Long History

President Bush's annual State of the Union Address to Congress and the American people Wednesday is the latest installment of a Washington ritual that dates back to the time of the first U.S. president, George Washington.

"Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States!"

With that familiar introduction in the U.S. House chamber, an American president prepares to deliver the annual State of the Union Address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress.

President George Washington delivered the first State of the Union Address in 1790. But for more than 100 years beginning in 1801, presidents sent a written version of their address to Congress that was read out loud by a clerk. It was President Woodrow Wilson who re-established the practice of delivering a State of the Union speech in person, in 1913.

The requirement for the address stems from the U.S. Constitution. It mandates that the president "shall from time to time give to Congress information on the State of the Union."

In the modern era, State of the Union speeches have become an opportunity for the president to lay out a lengthy series of specific policy proposals on a wide range of issues.

"In terms of the State of the Union, that is when you put the bricks on the scaffolding," said American University presidential historian Allan Lichtman on VOA's Encounter program.

Over the years, the State of the Union Address has become an opportunity for a president not only to propose policy, but to claim success for past policy decisions and rally party supporters as well.

For example, last year President Bush talked about his tax cuts. "Americans are proving once again to be the hardest working people in the world. The American economy is growing stronger. The tax relief you passed is working," he said.

Historically, presidents have also used the State of the Union Address to inspire lawmakers and ordinary citizens alike to attain loftier goals.

"The concept of summoning, challenging the American people to live up to their highest obligations as citizens of this country to help achieve peace around the world and justice here at home," said Ted Sorenson, who worked on many speeches for President John Kennedy, at a recent symposium sponsored by The New York Times and broadcast by the C-SPAN public affairs network.

The State of the Union also provides the president with an opportunity to build support for his policy proposals among both houses of Congress and the general public.

"The State of the Union is one of those events that have symbolic importance for the country. It is an occasion of pomp and tradition. It involves a nationally televised audience. It is an opportunity for the president to try to shape the policy-making agenda, to influence public opinion," said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, who spoke to VOA TV.

The process of writing and rewriting a State of the Union speech can take months. Ray Price recalled his experience as a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon.

"We would normally go back and forth through about seven or eight drafts. I would edit him, he would edit me, I would edit him, he would edit me as he was thinking the thing through," he said.

Ronald Reagan took the State of the Union Address to new heights during his presidency in the 1980s. He began the practice of introducing well-known figures as well as private citizens notable for some achievement, who were sitting in the House Gallery. These guests are usually interwoven into the president's speech.

For many years, the address was simply referred to as the President's Annual Message to Congress. It was President Franklin Roosevelt, in 1935, who began the practice of referring to the speech as the State of the Union Address.