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State of the Union speeches tend to be forgotten almost as soon as they are delivered.

The addresses tend to be a litany of (endless) policy proposals that never reach see the light of day and create a rhetorical formula that keeps presidents from reaching the heights of other speeches they give during their time in office.

There are, of course, exceptions — speeches that have some historical resonance beyond the night (or week) they are delivered.

We’ve collected a handful of the most memorable — in reverse chronological order — after the jump. Did we miss any? Add them in the comments section below.

* George W. Bush (2002): This is the most famous address of the Bush years thanks in large part to his use of the phrase “axis of evil” to describe the nations of Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The speech also came at a critical time in Bush’s presidency — roughly four months removed from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and one year before America’s invasion of Iraq. His use of the word “evil” drew scads of controversy and, for his critics, typified the manichean view Bush took on foreign policy.

* Bill Clinton (1996): This is the speech that gave us the famous “the era of big government is over” line that came to define Clinton’s move to the middle in his successful 1996 reelection race. Clinton’s declaration about the size of government also started a long-running debate within the Democratic party about whether government is — or should be — a good thing. It’s a topic President Obama has grappled with in his first two years in office and will continue to do so heading into 2012.

* Gerald Ford (1975): State of the Union speeches tend to be exercises in optimism even in the hardest times. (Obama will almost certainly engage in a bit of this cheerleading tonight; things are tough but the American spirit is triumphant etc.). Not so Ford in 1975 when he bluntly declared: “I must say to you that the state of the union is not good.” Ouch. How’s that for a little straight talk? Ford, to his credit, rightly sensed the temperament of the American public, who went on to elect a plain-spoken — and sort of morose — southern governor name Jimmy Carter less than two years later.

* Richard Nixon, 1974: In a last-gasp attempt to convince the American public that he had done nothing wrong in the Watergate affair, Nixon urged Congress to move on in his 1974 State of the Union speech. “I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end,” he said. “One year of Watergate is enough.” It didn’t work. By August, Nixon had resigned the presidency — unable to escape the Watergate taint.

Credit: Washington Post


State of Union 2011

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