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Eight Things You Might Not Know About the State of the Union

Some SOTU knowledge you can drop on your fellow Americans before the speech tonight.

If you’re like many Americans – let’s say 30 million of them or so – you’ll be tuning in to the State of the Union Tuesday night. The annual tradition of a presidential speech/national checkup/policy wishlist/political gauntlet-throwing dates back to America’s early history, but it’s only been broadcast in primetime since the 1960s.

Here’s some more SOTU knowledge you can drop on your fellow Americans before the speech tonight:

  • The first "Annual Message" was delivered by George Washington on January 8, 1790. (The practice came to be formally known as the "State of the Union" in 1946.) Washington's address to both chambers of Congress clocked in at just 1,089 words. Compare that to Obama’s 6786 words during his 2014 State of the Union address. But the modern State of the Union address is practically a Post-It note compared to the longest written versions, which presidents submitted to Congress between 1801 and 1913; those could be longer than 25,000 words.
  • The reason for those written versions? Washington and his successor, John Adams, did their addresses in person. But after poor reviews of his Inaugural Address, Thomas Jefferson – rumored to be a middling public speaker – denounced the practice as overly monarchical and submitted his in print. That trend stuck until President Woodrow Wilson “stunned” the Washington pooh-bahs by addressing his speech orally to both houses of Congress again.

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  • Six of the nine Supreme Court justices are expected to attend tonight’s State of the Union address, per NBC’s Pete Williams. The three who will sit it this year out are Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito. Alito made headlines in 2010 for mouthing “not true” when the president criticized the court’s ruling on corporate campaign spending. Scalia, who has skipped the previous seventeen addresses, has said of the State of the Union: “It has turned into a childish spectacle. I don't want to be there to lend dignity to it.”
  • The first televised State of the Union address came in 1947 by President Harry Truman. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson moved the address from the daytime to the evening to maximize viewership.
  • In 1982, President Ronald Reagan established the tradition of inviting special guests to sit with the First Lady in her gallery box. This year, First Lady Michelle Obama has invited Alan Gross, the American contractor recently released from a Cuban prison, to attend. Other notable guests include Malik Bryant, a 13 year-old boy from Chicago who asked only to "be safe" in a Christmas letter to Santa; Staff Sergeant Jason Gibson, a Wounded Warrior who lost both legs in Afghanistan; American astronaut Scott Kelly; and Larry J. Merlo, the president of CVS Health, which recently eliminated tobacco sales in its stores.
  • The tradition of an “opposition response” to the State of the Union started in 1966, when Sen. Everett Dirksen and Rep. Gerald Ford countered President Lyndon Johnson. In recent years, delivering the opposition response has come to be regarded as something of a curse: Gov. Bobby Jindal (2009) and Sen. Marco Rubio (2013) were lambasted for their awkward delivery of the response, while Gov. Bob McDonnell (2010) has since been convicted on felony corruption charges. Freshman Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst will give the response Tuesday evening, although she won’t be the first freshman to do the honors. That was Democrat Jim Webb in 2007.
  • In 2014, with 13 networks carrying the speech live, the estimated audience for the State of the Union was 33.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen. (For comparison’s sake, just shy of 50 million tuned in on Sunday to watch the NFC Championship game between Seattle and Green Bay.)
  • Nielsen also estimates that 2.1 million tweets were sent about last year’s State of the Union, with about 8.8 million people seeing at least one of them.