The scene is a familiar one: Gettysburg, November 1863. Almost five months after one of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War, a crowd gathered for the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery. One of America's finest speechmakers gave the oration. President Lincoln also spoke.
Edward Everett, a former president of Harvard and governor of Massachusetts, preceded Lincoln's 272-word address with a 13,607-word review of the Civil War's arc. The next day, he wrote to Lincoln, "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes."
Presidents and their speechwriters marvel at the brevity of great presidential addresses: Lincoln's second inaugural, Washington's farewell address, Kennedy's only inaugural. Yet today's presidential speeches fall closer to Everett's Gettysburg Address than to Lincoln's.
As the 2015 State of the Union nears, Americans should expect President Obama's speech to be a long one. His previous five State of the Union addresses have averaged 7,001 words. While he falls short of Bill Clinton's 7,426-word average, Obama leads his recent predecessors:
Bush II: 5,184
Bush I: 4,204
In fact, since Woodrow Wilson revived the 18th-century tradition of a spoken State of the Union, only Clinton surpasses Obama.
But it is unfair to single out Obama. Contemporary presidents, Wilson to Obama, have all given long State of the Union addresses compared to the nation's first two commanders in chief. George Washington's average is 2,080 words; John Adams's a mere 1,790. So what changed? Speechwriters and stakeholders.
Judson Welliver, Warren Harding's "literary clerk," is widely deemed the first presidential speechwriter. Alexander Hamilton wrote speeches for President Washington, while William Seward occasionally edited President Lincoln's work, but Welliver was the first hired solely as a speechwriter. Presidents now hire teams of Wellivers, which no doubt creates an expectation that speeches increase in length and number. How would President Obama respond if his team of ten speechwriters presented him with a 1,000-word, 8-minute State of the Union? Not well.
The expansion of the speechwriting staff is due to the creation and growth of the Executive Office of the President. The EOP has dramatically increased the number of, not just speechwriters, but also stakeholders a president must satisfy in any major address, especially a State of the Union. With every Cabinet member comes a staff ready to veto unwanted material.
But these are effects, not causes. Longer speeches, more speechwriters, and additional stakeholders should be attributed to the simple fact that, since the early 20th century, the presidency has changed. Arthur Schlesinger critically called it "the Imperial Presidency," while Richard Neustadt argued that the expansion of presidential power has only resulted in increased "power to persuade." The nature of the presidency in Washington's administration is different than in Obama's, which makes it unsurprising presidential speeches have changed, too.
So why can't Obama change the State of the Union again? He already has a little. In early January, the White House announced Obama, contrary to his predecessors, would spend the weeks before the State of the Union--not after--detailing various policy proposals from the speech. So is a shorter State of the Union all that unreasonable?
With many stakeholders already appeased, Obama's team of speechwriters should look to Lincoln, the greatest presidential speechwriter, for inspiration. After all, to write long is easy; to write short is hard. Upon asking how long they would like him to speak, Woodrow Wilson reminded his hosts at a trade association convention a ten-minute speech could be prepared in a week and a five-minute speech in ten days. But, if asked to speak for an hour or longer, he was "ready right now." So perhaps long presidential speeches are not due to more speechwriters or stakeholders, or the Imperial Presidency. Maybe it takes an incredible amount of time and patience to write a 272-word speech, and presidential staffs, even with ten speechwriters, are too busy to do the hard work of writing short.