First Ladies and the State of the Union

Today, watching the State of the Union Address on television, it is hard to imagine that this annual event is not really a static tradition within the 217 years of the American Presidency.  In fact, the State of the Union Address has not always even involved a public appearance by the President.  However, throughout history, First Ladies have played both a private and public part in shaping this unique Address.

The first President, George Washington (1789-1797) was an icon even in the 1790s as the General who successfully led the American Revolution.  It was in the national newspapers that most Americans read his famous speeches - Inaugural Address, Farewell Address and annual "Message to Congress" (as the State of the Union speech was then referred to). For New Yorkers and Philadelphians, however, there was a more palpable sense of the regal pomp surrounding the already mythological George Washington. Over six feet tall, with a stark white wig and ruddy complexion, often wearing his dramatic navy blue cape in winter, President Washington either walked or rode through the streets in his kingly coach to the hall of Congress to deliver his annual message, which became an anticipated event. The "message" was on the previous year's progress of the nation - from the president's viewpoint, of course - and his advised course for the year ahead. Although Martha Washington (First Lady, April 30, 1789-1797) was in residence at the time of all of his eight appearances, there is no documentation suggesting whether she accompanied him.  Considering the ceremoniousness of the event, the fact that she did go to hear debates in Congress and was present at the second inaugural, it is likely that she was present for at least one of the speeches.

Under the bitterly partisan presidential term of his vice president and successor, Federalist John Adams (1797-1801) continued Washington's tradition. Although she was not present in the capital for the second of his four messages to Congress, Abigail Adams (First Lady, March 4, 1797 - March 4, 1801) wrote her assessment of her husband's speech, on December 3, 1799, opining that it would prove unpopular in regard to her husband’s efforts to keep the U.S. out of war with France or England.  “They will grumble at all events and under all circumstances, and so let them,” she philosophized. She was therefore delighted that the House and Senate received the speech “with more applause and approbation than any speech which the President has ever delivered.”  As for the traditional reply of the Senate to the President, she was certain it was drafted by a New Englander because it quoted Scripture, she said, “no Southern man ever quotes Scripture.”  Interestingly, despite her public reputation as the president’s great political advisor and a sharply partisan Federalist in her own right, the First Lady felt it was improper for her to attend.  Instead, she asked her daughter Nabby Smith to sit in the audience and report back her observations.

The leading anti-Federalist, Vice President Thomas Jefferson, Adams' old friend, was deeply troubled by the pageantry of it all. As President, Jefferson (1801-1809) refused to continue the custom of a grand ceremonial visit to the legislative branch to speak his message.  He believed that the entire ceremony and procession of his two predecessors had become too much of a monarchial procession that was dangerous for democracy. Jefferson simply sent a written version of his address to Congress and had it printed in the public newspapers. For 112 years his successors - from James Madison to William Howard Taft - did likewise.

One month and four days after becoming President, Woodrow Wilson broke the long precedent set by Jefferson. On April 8, 1913 he became the first since Adams to deliver the Presidential Message to Congress in person. Former President Theodore Roosevelt, among many others, was astonished at what he viewed as arrogance and later railed that Wilson was "selfish and cold-blooded politician" and an "doctrinaire" who put his "personal ambition" above all else. Ellen Wilson, (First Lady, March 4, 1913- August, 1914) with whom the President had a long history of first reviewing his public statements, was there to proudly witness the event. She had, in fact, urged him to make the bold move. As she was leaving the Capital she remarked that it was "the kind of thing that Theodore Roosevelt would have liked to do - in fact would have done if he had thought of it."

By coincidence, on that same night in the same chamber, the woman who would, in 32 months, become the second wife of the president, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, (First Lady, December 1915 - March 4, 1921) was also in attendance and focused on him. She coaxed a Capitol Building police guard to let her into the House chamber without the required ticket so she could hear Wilson speak. After a "definite effort on my part" Edith took a front-row seat in the visitor's gallery, where, directly above the speaker's rostrum, she had a close-up view of Wilson. When she became First Lady Edith Wilson would rarely ever leave the side of the President at any of his public events and she sat prominently with the wives of Cabinet members and Democratic Senate and House leaders to listen to all of Wilson's State of the Union Addresses after their marriage.

Few First Ladies were as overtly involved in presidential policy as was Florence Harding (First Lady, March 4, 1921 - August 2, 1923). Having helped shape the anti-League of Nations stance of the successful presidential campaign of her husband, Warren Harding, she vigorously held him to that view. Harding read a draft of his 1921 State of the Union speech to his Attorney-General Harry Daughtery in the Oval Office. Daughtery grew alarmed that Harding was implying his eventual acceptance of the League. He went directly to the First Lady and was present at a heated argument between the couple. The First Lady insisted the President remove the paragraphs in question and by the time Daughtery left, Harding had not budged. Listening to the State of the Union along with Interior Secretary Albert Fall, Daughtery was shocked when the place came for the intended paragraphs: Florence Harding had prevailed. "A wise little woman," remarked Fall. Presidential speechwriter Judson Welliver further recalled an incident where Florence Harding came into the Oval Office, read through a draft of Harding's State of the Union for either 1922 or 1923 - and refused to leave until he removed a proposal to Congress of a one-term six-year presidency that would remove the Chief Executive from the partisan politics necessary to winning a second term. She again succeeded.

When Jacqueline Kennedy (First Lady, January 20, 1961 - November 22, 1963) attended her husband's State of the Union Address, she often invited women relatives who lived in Washington like her mother, half-sister, sisters-in-law Joan Kennedy, Ethel Kennedy, Jean Kennedy Smith and Eunice Kennedy Shriver. The press gallery frequently turned their attention away briefly from the president's speech for a quick glance at what the First Lady was wearing - and included accounts of it in the next day's "women's page" of newspapers. Jacqueline Kennedy also turned her attention from the speech - to the members of Congress below. She made acute observations of their responses to various parts of the speech, especially those concerning the President's proposed funding for the space program and school bill initiative. A friend recalled, "She follows every roll-call in the Congressional Record. She is intensely loyal to Jack and resents votes against his programs." Once, while being driven through town, she spotted a bachelor Republican senator who had taken her social secretary on a date. The man was cool to the school bill and she had her driver pull up to him by the curb, rolled the window down and shouted, "I thought you were going to be nice to us, because if you're not I won't let you take out [my social secretary] anymore."

The last months of Lyndon Johnson's presidency were fraught with the trauma of the Vietnam War and many of the former colleagues of LBJ in the House and Senate with whom he had become friends, now withdrew much of their support for him. At his last State of the Union Address, Lady Bird Johnson (First Lady, November 22, 1963- January 20, 1969) sat with her daughters Lynda Robb and Luci Nugent, and the latter's child, the President's first grandchild, Lyn Nugent, two years old at the time. Suddenly, without warning, the toddler began banging his bottle against the railing - below which sat the august and humorless members of the U.S. Senate. He then began shouting as babies will, turning the heads of the legislators up towards the president's family. The usually calm First Lady couldn't help bursting into laughter, relieving some of the political tension she felt that night, as Luci Nugent finally slipped out with her son. In his 1964 address, LBJ became the first president to make passing reference to his wife, recalling their international travel during his vice presidential years and the goodwill towards the United States they had encountered.

Jimmy Carter was one of the first Presidents to acknowledge his tremendous reliance on his wife for her political input, opinion and suggestions. Indeed Rosalynn Carter (First Lady, January 20, 1977 - January 20, 1981) made it her business to not only initiate several domestic and international efforts on behalf of the Administration. She often traveled the nation and spoke with common citizens about their reaction to policy and concerns. In that context, she attended Cabinet meetings so she could take notes and hear firsthand the issues on the Administration's agenda and then carry it out herself in speeches. Both the President and First Lady thus openly acknowledged that on the day before his 1978 State of the Union Address, in their bedroom suite in the White House, Rosalynn Carter carefully went over the final draft of the intended speech, suggesting changes and additions, some of which he incorporated. The President felt that because she understood issues "from the viewpoint of the average American, I don't mind her criticizing my speeches."

According to the sharp memoir accounts of Ronald Reagan's Chief of Staff Donald Reagan, it was Nancy Reagan (January 20, 1981 - January 20, 1989) who influenced the exact date of her husband's 1987 State of the Union Address, based on astrological readings that were prepared for her by Joan Quigley, with the intention being to chose the best possible day to deliver it in terms of the President’s health. Certainly a great influence on the decision was based on Nancy Reagan's concern for the full recovery of her husband from surgery just weeks earlier. Reagan further stated that the First Lady significantly influenced the content of the President's January 1987 State of the Union Address, advising to avoid contentious partisan issues and focus instead on building the Reagan legacy. It was during the Reagan years that the custom began of inviting special guests to sit with the First Lady in the V.I.P. Gallery, regular citizens or prominent figures, who exemplified a point or a program that the President was referring to in his speech.

In 1988, Ronald Reagan also became the first president to bring attention to his wife by referring - he called her by her first name - to her project work, as it related to the larger Administration agenda. "The war against drugs is a war of individual battles, a crusade with many heroes -- including America's young people, and also someone very special to me," Reagan said. "She has helped so many of our young people to say 'no' to drugs. Nancy, much credit belongs to you, and I want to express to you your husband's pride and your country's thanks. Surprised you, didn't I?"

George Bush followed suit. In his 1992 State of the Union Address, he referred to his wife Barbara Bush (First Lady, January 20, 1989 - January 20, 1993) in the context of the Administration's emphasis on family-related policy. He stated: "And finally, we must strengthen the family, because it is the family that has the greatest bearing on our future. When Barbara holds an AIDS baby in her arms and reads to children, she's saying to every person in this country, 'family matters'."

Perhaps the most unusual role played very publicly by a First Lady was in 2001. It was the first month of the last weeks of the Clinton Administration and also marked the start of the U.S. Senate term of the only presidential wife elected to office in her own right, Hillary Clinton, Senator from New York. For the first 20 days of 2001, she was both the President’s spouse and a member of Congress.

  For the previous seven years, Hillary Clinton (January 20, 1993-January 20, 2001) had a notable presence at the State of the Union Address. Seated in the traditional gallery seats set aside for the First Lady, she was often flanked by a variety of American citizens working on numerous projects or symbolizing various programs.   One year she invited the founder and president of the National First Ladies Library, Mary Regula to sit with her, giving prominence to the NFLL as an emerging institution.

From the rostrum itself, no First Lady was more frequently evoked in a State of the Union Address than was Hillary Clinton. In 1994, the President referenced her efforts to devise the Administration's proposed health care reform reading part of a letter a Nevada couple had sent her, chronicling their struggles following health emergencies. In his 1996 speech, Clinton made an unprecedented remark acknowledging how influential his wife had been on him: " thank the person who has taught me more than anyone else over 25 years about the importance of families and children -- a wonderful wife, a magnificent mother and a great First Lady. Thank you, Hillary.” The next year, he raised the topic of her work on children's issues, announcing, "The First Lady has spent years writing about this issue, studying it. And she and I are going to convene a White House Conference on Early Learning and the Brain this spring, to explore how parents and educators can best use these startling new findings."

 In 1998, the President called attention to the First Lady three times: in reference to a trip they took to Sarajevo; her sponsorship of the first White House Conference on child care; and the launch of her White House Millennium program promoting America's innovation and preserving its heritage and culture. That year Hillary sat with a woman who had successfully gone from welfare to work under Clinton's welfare reform bill, and a U.S. Army Sergeant who had fought in Bosnia.

In 1999, the President mentioned the First Lady in two different contexts: her efforts to aid Central American and Caribbean nations in the aftermath of devastating hurricanes and her leadership of Save America's Treasures, a historic preservation program.  Seated with her that year were civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks and a gun control advocate who had lost a child in a school shooting.

In 2000, he mentioned her three times: her efforts to get the entertainment industry to develop one standard "v-chip" rating system; her Millennium Dinner with a lecture on the human genome project; and her success in drafting new foster care and adoption policy. He ended by saying, "I am forever grateful to the person who has led our efforts from the beginning, and who's worked so tirelessly for children and families for 30 years now: my wife, Hillary."

George W. Bush became the fourth consecutive President to make reference to the symbolism, and project work of his wife. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Laura Bush (First Lady, January 20, 2001- present) made numerous appeals to parents to focus on their children and explain the crisis while also offering a sense of protection to them. As the President stated in his 2002 State of the Union Address, "And I hope you will join me -- I hope you will join me in expressing thanks to one American for the strength and calm and comfort she brings to our nation in crisis, our First Lady, Laura Bush." In 2005, Bush talked about a "need to focus on giving young people, especially young men in our cities, better options than apathy, or gangs, or jail." That night he proposed a three-year initiative to deter young men from joining gangs and propagating violence. "Taking on gang life will be one part of a broader outreach to at-risk youth, . . . And I'm proud that the leader of this nationwide effort will be our first lady, Laura Bush."