WASHINGTON ― The State of the Union is one of the most predictable set pieces of political theater in the United States. Washington’s partisan divide will be easily evident by who sits and who stands and claps. Some octogenarian senator will be caught asleep on camera. A military widow or a wounded soldier will be used as justification for continued overseas military operations ― and easy applause. No one will remember what policies were proposed. The opposition party response will doom the career of whoever gives it.
And the president will declare, with much unnecessary buildup, that the state of the union is “strong.”
Every year, no matter the state of the economy, the health of the people or the still-burning pile of rubble at the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the state of the union is “strong,” “stronger than before,” “much improved,” “good,” “sound” or maybe, if you are lucky, the “strongest it has ever been” or even “never been stronger.”
That is unless you happen to be Gerald Ford (R), the 38th president of the United States.
In January 1975, five months after acceding to the presidency in the wake of Richard Nixon’s (R) resignation, Ford gave his first State of the Union address. He recounted how when he was a freshman congressman from Michigan he sat in the House and witnessed President Harry Truman (D) declare that the state of the union was “good.”
“Today, that freshman member from Michigan stands where Mr. Truman stood, and I must say to you that the state of the union is not good,” Ford said.
Not good was an understatement. The nation was in the middle of a long recession, inflation ran wild, factories closed, crime rates soared and energy shocks and long gas lines were a recent memory. The continued debate over Nixon’s extreme corruption, which Ford had labeled “our long national nightmare,” still raged. And this is not to mention the continued revelations by congressional investigators about how the nation’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies routinely broke the law to undermine the civil and political rights of Americans.
Still, “not good” is the most negative state a president has ever said the union has been in, according to the history of State of the Union addresses delivered to Congress.
Not every president has opined on what the state of the union is in his State of the Union addresses, but those who did had never dared declare it anything less than “challenged,” as Lyndon Johnson (D) did in 1968. Ford actually leveled with the American people and said that, in truth, the state of the union was “not good.”
No president has ever risked doing so again. Ford lost the election the next year to Jimmy Carter (D), previously the little-known governor of Georgia. (Although not a State of the Union address, Carter would make the same “mistake” in 1980 in his much-maligned “malaise speech.”)
Since 1981, there has been a marked rise in the presidential declaration that the state of the union is “strong.” Ronald Reagan (R) declared the state of the union to be “strong” or “stronger” in four of his seven addresses. George H.W. Bush (R) said the state of the union was “strong” only once; he lost re-election.
Bill Clinton (D) really formalized the use of the word “strong” in the address. In all seven of his State of the Union addresses, Clinton declared the state of the union to be “strong” or “growing stronger.” Since then, every State of the Union address from George W. Bush (R) and Barack Obama (D) has declared that the state of the union is strong, to some extent.
The White House has already announced that President Donald Trump will declare on Tuesday that the state of the union is “strong.”
The American people will have to wait 500 (fictional) years for another dose of negativity in the form of President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho telling them he knows “shit is bad right now with all that starving bullshit.”
But until then, we’ll always have Gerald Ford.