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SOTU fun facts: From written report to primetime pomp and circumstance

Here are some fun facts about the State of the Union that you may not have known.
Image: Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress
President Donald J. Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives in Washington on Feb. 28, 2017.Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA, file

WASHINGTON — In a city that loves political pomp and circumstance, there’s no more elaborate display than the annual State of the Union address.

But aside from the big speech and the accompanying drinking games proposed by politics nerds every year, the tradition — like so many things in politics — has plenty of history and quirks. Here are some fun facts about the State of the Union that you may not have known:

The origins: George Washington delivered the first State of the Union address in person to a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1790. That kicked off the tradition, which was continued by John Adams. But Thomas Jefferson fretted that an in-person address was too much like “a speech from the throne,” so he simply submitted it in writing. (Maybe another reason: Some historians think that Jefferson — not known as a great orator — wanted to avoid a reprise of his panned, hard-to-hear inaugural address.)

The written tradition continued until President Woodrow Wilson broke the mold in 1913, returning to an in-person speech. The decision “stunned official Washington,” according to one author. The last president to exercise the option of a written address was Jimmy Carter in 1981.

The guests: Each member of Congress receives one additional ticket to the chamber, and members frequently bring guests to underscore a particular policy or political goal. Guests invited by members of Congress this year include DREAMers, relatives of victims of gun violence, sexual assault victims, people displaced by last year’s hurricanes, a Miss America winner, a Democratic challenger to Speaker Paul Ryan and Bill Nye (the Science Guy!).

President Ronald Reagan additionally began the practice of inviting guests to sit with the First Lady, starting with a government employee named Lenny Skutnik who fished a victim out of the Potomac River after a plane crash. Those guests have included: Rosa Parks, Dikembe Mutombo, Hank Aaron, Sammy Sosa, Scott Kelly and Tim Cook.

The length: After Wilson revived the notion of an in-person speech, State of the Union speeches became dramatically shorter than their written predecessors. In the late 20th century, the speech has averaged about 5,000 words. The longest oral delivery was Bill Clinton’s in 2000, coming in at 1 hour, 28 minutes and 49 seconds — and at 7,542 words.

The timing: While the State of the Union might seem intuitively like a primetime, evening affair, the timing of the speech hasn’t always been a night in January or February. Originally, the State of the Union was typically delivered in December, but that shifted back a month after the 20th Amendment changed the timing of the opening of congressional sessions. The speech was also delivered during the day until 1965, when Lyndon Johnson moved the address to the evening in pursuit of a bigger audience.

The designated survivor: The custom of a single Cabinet member skipping the speech for security purposes began in 1984. Starting after the 9/11 attacks, two members of each house of Congress — representing both parties — also stay away to ensure the continuance of some national leadership in the event of an attack or disaster.

The media: The first radio broadcast of the State of the Union was in 1923, under President Calvin Coolidge. The first broadcast on television was Harry Truman’s 1947 address, and the first live webcast was for George W. Bush’s 2002 speech.

The response: The practice of the opposition party giving a response directly after the State of the Union began in 1966, when Senator Everett Dirksen and Representative Gerald Ford provided the Republican reply to President Lyndon Johnson.