Two centuries before Twitter, U.S. presidents understood the power of communicating directly with the people. From George Washington to Donald Trump, presidents have always adopted the latest media and technology to connect with voters and forward their political agenda.
George Washington's State of the Union Address
George Washington was well-aware of the public scrutiny surrounding his presidency, the first experiment with executive power in the political experiment that was the United States. America had just unshackled itself from an English monarch and was on high alert for any signs of despotism in its new president. That’s why George Washington played it very safe in his inaugural address, humbly declining to offer any suggestions or ideas to Congress.
Nine months later, on January 8, 1790, Washington fulfilled his constitutional duty (Article II, Section 3) to “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.”
Washington’s first State of the Union, like the first inaugural, was a “precisely calibrated political statement,” writes Anna Groves of George Mason University. The president praised Congress and gently offered suggestions regarding the creation of a national currency, a post office and a system of weights and measures, while also weighing in on more controversial topics (even then) like the national debt and immigration.
Washington knew that the speech would be published in the newspapers, so it was a message to the American people as well as Congress. Not unlike modern times, the president’s appearance was as important as his words. The Virginia Herald and Fredericksburg Advertiser noted that Washington “was dressed in a crow coloured suit of clothes, of American manufacture.”
Abe Lincoln Masters Debate—and the Telegraph
“He’s living in a time when you have to communicate through debates with people, as he did with Stephen Douglas,” says Kearns Goodwin. “They would be there for six hours, and [Lincoln] was so great at these debates.”
The Lincoln-Douglas debates, like Lincoln’s speeches as president, were published in the newspapers, and served as a direct channel to influence public opinion.
During the Civil War, Lincoln was the first president to install a dedicated telegraph office in the War Department, right next to the White House. According to Tom Wheeler, author of Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails: How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War, Lincoln personally sent hundreds of telegraph messages to his commanders in the field and even slept in the telegraph office during fierce battles.
“Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew and choke, as much as possible,” Lincoln once telegraphed Ulysses S. Grant, to which Grant replied, “The president has more nerve than any of his advisers.”
William McKinley Films the First Campaign Commercial
In 1896, William McKinley’s presidential campaign became the first to capitalize on the brand-new medium of moving pictures. It might look painfully boring today, but the reenactment of McKinley receiving the Republican nomination would have been completely novel to late 19th-century audiences. KcKinley’s inauguration was also the first-ever filmed.
Teddy Roosevelt: Good at Catchy Slogans
Kearns Goodwin jokes that Teddy Roosevelt would have been a pro at Twitter. The Rough Rider president had a knack for catchy slogans and colorful quips that were eaten up by the newspaper columnists and political cartoonists of the day.
“[Teddy Roosevelt is] at an age where mass-market newspapers have just come into being, and Teddy was so exuberant and could say all sorts of interesting things—‘speak softly and carry a big stick,’ ‘sissy reformers’—just the right kind of punchy language for that new newspaper style,” says Kearns Goodwin.
FDR’s Fireside Chats
Famous for his Fireside Chats, Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn’t the first American president to give live radio addresses. Calvin Coolidge gave regular radio addresses after being the first president to have his State of the Union speech broadcast live on the radio.
But FDR, unlike the dour Coolidge, knew how to use his natural charisma to really engage the American people through this new medium. Kearns Goodwin says that FDR would carefully rehearse each of his fireside chats (he gave 30 in his 12 years in office) and imagine that he was speaking individually with American farmers, teachers and shop keepers.
“FDR comes on the scene when radio was just being born and he had the exact right voice for radio,” says Goodwin. “It was not only dignified, but it was intimate, so that he could make them feel—even though he was talking to them miles away—that he was actually having a conversation with them in their living room.”
Kennedy, America's First Made-for-TV President
The turning point for Kennedy were the 1960 debates with Richard Nixon, the first presidential debates to be broadcast live on national television. Listening on the radio, political observers thought the two men were neck and neck. But TV gave the win to the young, athletic and tanned Kennedy, who made the older Nixon—just out of the hospital after knee surgery—look pallid and weak.
“JFK masters television as does Ronald Reagan,” says Kearns Goodwin. “They know how to speak to the camera. They know how to use their charisma and their looks and their speaking ability, and to reach the public that way.”
Clinton Sends First Presidential Email
Bill Clinton, like every other trailblazing “cybernaut” in 1993, had an AOL email account, ClintonPz@aol.com. He also had the first official presidential email address which he almost never used. In fact, the Clinton Presidential Library once claimed to only have two emails personally sent by the president. The first apparently was a test to see if the computer-shy president was capable of clicking the send button.
Obama and Trump Enter the Twitter Age
Twitter launched in 2006 and Barack Obama’s White House debuted the first presidential Twitter account in 2009. The president didn’t get his own account, @POTUS44 until 2015, and even then, he didn’t compose or send the Tweets himself.
The first president of the Twitter age was Donald Trump, who tweeted or retweeted approximately 3,500 times in 2018, 7,700 times in 2019 and more than 12,000 times in 2020. Twitter suspended Trump's account (@realDonaldTrump) on January 8, 2021 following the U.S. Capitol Riot; the service later reinstated him.