January 17, 1966
Each January or February, the United States observes a national ritual—the presentation of the annual State of the Union address (except during an inauguration year, when the speech is considered an "address to Congress"). The Constitution requires that the president “from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union,” and all but two presidents have fulfilled that responsibility, either in person or in writing. The two who did not–William Henry Harrison and James Garfield–died before they got the chance. It was known simply as the president’s annual message until the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt referred to it as the State of the Union Address. Harry Truman formalized that title in 1947.
The event has evolved a great deal over the years, and perhaps nothing changed it quite as much as television! Truman was the first to use the new medium, and Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy followed suit, but it was Lyndon Johnson who recognized the power of television. Whereas his predecessors typically delivered their speeches at midday, when television audiences were small, in 1965 LBJ took the speech to prime time.
“By scheduling his speech in prime television time,” commented the New York Times, President Johnson “automatically doubled or tripled the size of his audience.” Perhaps even more important, the Times noted, “since his remarks were a nighttime event, the speech automatically enjoyed much more advance promotion by the networks.” The overall effect was to emphasize that the State of the Union had become more than “a report to Congress.” Now, it was a report “to the people.”
The importance of Johnson’s pioneering effort was not lost on members of Congress and particularly Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. The Republican leader was an old hand with the press and understood the impact of media exposure on public opinion. His weekly press conferences with the House minority leaders—dubbed the “Ev and Charlie Show” and later the “Ev and Jerry Show”—became something of a sensation. Consequently, when LBJ went prime time in 1965, Dirksen vowed to get equal time.
Of course, members of the opposition party had been responding to the president’s message for years, but such remarks came in the relatively ignored environment of the Senate or House Chamber or at local political events. To gain national attention, Dirksen needed a national forum, and that meant television. And so, after LBJ’s next State of the Union address in 1966, Republican leaders Everett Dirksen and Gerald Ford recorded a 30-minute televised rebuttal of the president’s speech. For an appropriate venue, the leaders chose the Old Senate Chamber, the setting for some of our nation’s most monumental debates. Dirksen covered foreign policy, discussing what he termed the “grim, bloody and costly business” of Vietnam, while Ford tackled domestic issues, targeting inflation, civil rights, and campaign finance.
It was “a short time for a gigantic task,” Dirksen quipped, and the TV networks were not very accommodating—the program aired five days after Johnson’s speech and in some areas it competed with the late, late show—but public reaction was positive. The Dirksen-Ford event may not mean that the minority voice will be “more widely heeded in Congress,” commented the Washington Post, “but it is being more widely heard in the country.” Dirksen and Ford made a return engagement in 1967. Today, thanks to the efforts of Dirksen and Ford, the opposition response is anticipated and discussed almost as much as the president’s speech.