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We Can Thank Harry Truman for TV Politics

Truman was the first president to regularly appear on television

President Harry S. Truman, addressing Americans by radio in 1945. (US National Archives/Harry S Truman Library)
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On this day in 1948, Harry S. Truman was the first president to deliver the State of the Union address on live television. His report: “the state of the Union is good.”

The story of television and how Americans see the presidency is so linked that it’s difficult to pull apart the threads of technological progress in broadcasting, consumer interest in television and citizen interest in the president. That’s also true of radio and of the theater newsreels that preceded televised presidential appearances.

At a time when every household didn’t own a television, and radios were still a more common media, Truman’s administration pioneered a way of displaying the workings of government that has transformed American politics. Televising important moments in governing—such as the State of the Union—was part of this effort.

This year, President-Elect Donald J. Trump won’t give a State of the Union address, and neither will President Barack Obama. “The outgoing president does not typically give a speech,” writes Byron Tau for the Wall Street Journal, while the incoming president traditionally speaks in front of a joint session of Congress.

The reason for this? “It doesn’t really make a lot of sense for newly inaugurated presidents to deliver a State of the Union address after only having been in office for a few days,” writes Ethan Trex for Mental Floss.

In the past twenty-odd years, viewership for the State of the Union has been declining, writes Alvin Chang for Vox. Unlike debates, which have continued to have a larger number of viewers, he writes that people generally tune in to the State of the Union only if the president is going to talk about something big, like George W. Bush justifying the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In 1948, it was all new. Only a few months before, in October 1947, Truman had delivered the first televised presidential address from the White House. Nearing the end of his term, the president was seeking every opportunity to spread his message.

Truman won the 1948 election, but historian and economist Zachary Karabell, writing about the 1948 Democratic convention, notes that something had changed since the last electoral cycle. Although the cameras that filmed the convention were for the most part inconspicuous, and only around 10 million people in a country of more than 125 million tuned in, it was a shift that would lead to other shifts. “After 1948, the political process changed to meet the demands of television,” he writes.

He wasn’t the first president to appear on television, Andrew Glass writes for Politico: that was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who broadcast from the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

FDR’s appearance was limited, though. His speech opening the fairgrounds was seen only “on receivers at the fairgrounds and at Radio City Music Hall, in midtown Manhattan,” Glass writes.

Even a decade later, when Truman began appearing, the medium “was still in its infancy,” Glass reports. “There were only about 44,000 TV sets in U.S. homes, concentrated in a few cities, compared with some 40 million radios.” But it was growing fast: in 1951, Truman made the first presidential coast-to-coast broadcast, reaching 87 stations in 47 cities, writes History.com.

A more common way to encounter the president in film was on newsreels played at theaters. Truman had appeared in a number of these. In one of the most memorable, he told Americans about Hiroshima and the atomic bomb. But these newsreels didn’t have the immediacy of television, writes Franklin D. Mitchell, because they were often pre-recorded days in advance.

By the mid-1960s, when he was no longer president, Truman talked about his political career in a 26-episode show called Decisions: The Conflicts of Harry S. Truman.

The State of the Union didn’t become a primetime spectacle until more than 15 years after Truman’s first televised one, Trex writes. That tradition started in 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson changed the timing of his address from the day to the evening.

“At the time, LBJ was trying to sell Americans on his civil rights reforms and Great Society plans,” he writes, “so he decided to give the address at night in order to reach the widest possible audience.”

His attempt worked, and ever since, State of the Union addresses have been delivered during primetime.

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