Delivered to a Joint Session of Congress in the early afternoon of January 30, 1961, President John F. Kennedy’s first State of the Union address painted a dark picture of the country’s domestic and international standing. Kennedy’s prepared remarks kicked off with a nod to his former House service, from 1947 to 1953: “You are my oldest friends in Washington—and this House is my oldest home. To speak from this same historic rostrum makes me very solemn. To be back among so many friends makes me very glad.” Kennedy made minor edits to the text of the speech, so this version, known as the “reading copy,” differs slightly from the one he ultimately delivered in person before Congress. Reading copies of presidential messages given before a Joint Session are records of the Office of the Clerk.
Article II of the Constitution requires that the President “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” A type of presidential message, the name of the speech has changed over time from an “Annual Message” to the current “State of the Union” title. The form of the address has also varied throughout its history from a written document sent to both chambers to one delivered in person to a Joint Session of Congress. One of the rare occasions when two State of the Union addresses were delivered in the same year happened in 1961.
Presented only 10 days after his inauguration, contemporary newspaper coverage characterized the speech as “a rat-tat-tat technique, a gunfire rapid listing of the Nation’s ills and perils, foreign and domestic,” intended to rouse the country from the “complacency” encouraged by the previous administration. Yet Kennedy’s speech wasn’t entirely bleak. While identifying the serious challenges facing the nation, he acknowledged the purpose of his address: “To state the facts frankly is not to despair the future nor indict the past. The prudent heir takes careful inventory of his legacies, and gives a faithful accounting to those whom he owes an obligation of trust.”