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The State of the Union and the value of ‘healthy controversy’

Words matter. Tone matters. Emotion matters.

In a few days, President Biden will try to give us a sense of America’s direction in his State of the Union address to a fractured Congress and nation, coming off an emotional period of mass shootings and the killing of Tyre Nichols, whose Memphis parents will be at the State of the Union as the president’s guests. That’s a lot of emotion right there.

Biden’s speechwriters will pour through quotes from earlier State of the Union addresses looking for kernels of truth and pearls of wisdom. Here are some they should re-read.

In 1790 George Washington used 833 words in his State of the Union address to outline the “pleasing though arduous task of insuring to our fellow citizens the blessing which they have a right to expect from a free, efficient, and equal government.” Americans want a free, efficient and equal life.

In 1862, facing an America divided by slavery, President Lincoln demanded that “the fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation.” America is at the intersection of honor and dishonor or its modern-day equivalent: democracy and chaos.

The State of the Union that might come closest to today’s reality was put forth by John F. Kennedy in January 1961.

JFKs State of the Union address came early in his administration — just 10 days after his inauguration. The conditions in the nation were similar to those of today. Kennedy described a nation ground down by domestic economic turmoil and facing threats from around the world, including the rise of communist China and the Soviet Union — which he said were the greatest dangers, their “aggression” and “subversion.”

Kennedy described the state of the economy as “disturbing,” underscoring that prices were too high for most Americans. He addressed the federal deficit, which he worried was approaching $2 billion. That’s right: $2 billion.

What President Kennedy did well that year was to be candid with the American people about the challenges the nation faced:

“Life in 1961 will not be easy. Wishing it, predicting it, even asking for it will not make it so.” There will be further setbacks before the tide is turned. And turn it must.” 

Lastly, Kennedy found a way to bridge the divide, albeit one far less ideological and polarizing. He reminded Americans to hope for “our” country — that we were in it together.

“…[T]he hopes of all mankind rest upon us — not simply upon those of us in this chamber, but upon the peasant in Laos, the fisherman in Nigeria, the exile from Cuba, the spirit that moves every man and Nation who shares our hopes for freedom and the future. And in the final analysis, they rest most of all upon the pride and perseverance of our fellow citizens in this ‘Great Republic.’”

Interestingly, Congress looked different in 1961 than it does now. It was mostly white and male, with only 19 women serving in the House and Senate at the time.

President Biden should applaud congressional diversity. Today, a quarter of voting members of the U.S. Congress are not white, making the 118th Congress the most racially and ethnically diverse ever. This year there is a record number of women (149) and a record number of people of color (133) serving as lawmakers. That’s worth celebrating.

The congressional tone in 1961 was civil, but Kennedy warned that partisanship would grow: “Let it be clear,” he said in that first State of the Union speech, “that this Administration recognizes the value of daring and dissent — that we greet healthy controversy as the hallmark of healthy change.”

And therein lies the best advice to President Biden. Use words, tone and emotion to galvanize the nation to act in ways that uphold our values. America has room for “healthy controversy.” But we are reaching the tipping point when dissent dissolves into discordance and into violence. That slippery slope is where democracies die. There is time to avoid it, but not much.

Tara D. Sonenshine has written many speeches for others. She is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Tags Biden Biden presidency George Washington John F. Kennedy SOTU State of the Union State of the Union address

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