The president was nearly finished with his State of the Union address when he changed the subject to the investigation that was prompting calls for his resignation.
“I want you to know that I have no intention whatever of ever walking away from the job that the people elected me to do,” declared President Nixon. More than once, presidents have used the annual address for subjects other than the one stated in its title.
Now, 24 years after Nixon’s speech, President Clinton is poised to give his State of the Union speech Tuesday night in an expectant atmosphere. Allegations that he had an affair with a White House intern continue to swirl through the capital city.
Some are asking whether Clinton will use his prime-time speech to answer the accusations. White House officials say he won’t.
While the Nixon speech is perhaps the most striking parallel, there have been other occasions when presidents have used the State of the Union for reasons other than simply outlining legislative agendas and summarizing accomplishments.
In the 1930s, for example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used his State of the Union speeches to lift the morale of a nation in the throes of the Great Depression.
In 1964, President Johnson delivered an unusually brief State of the Union speech, which is best remembered for his pledge to continue much of the work begun by the recently assassinated President Kennedy.
As a jittery nation tried to reassure itself, Johnson told the Soviet Union - then the country’s biggest Cold War foe - that the United States remained a worthy adversary.
“We intend to bury no one,” the new president said, “and we do not intend to be buried.”
The Constitution demands that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union.”
The first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, appeared personally before Congress to deliver their addresses. The practice stopped in 1801, when Thomas Jefferson began submitting written reports.
In 1913, President Wilson revived the annual speech. Today, scholars argue about whether Kennedy or Reagan, both telegenic figures, gave more effective State of the Union addresses.
It is because of that history that Clinton should avoid addressing the intern allegations in this year’s speech, says Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution.
“The State of the Union is something that’s written into the Constitution,” he said. “I don’t think it should be used for other purposes.”