The Players: A Trip Down Memory Lane -- Presidents Meet The Illinois Legislature

Feb 23, 2016

President Barack Obama, with General Assembly leaders House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, during Obama's February 2016 historic speech to a joint session of the Illinois legislature.
Credit Pool photo by Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune

Illinois' leaders are still stuck in a budgetary quagmire, weeks after President Barack Obama came to Springfield to call for less polarization in politics.

For this episode of The Players: Your look into who's who in Illinois politics and what they're up to (or more precisely this time around -- your look into who's who in national politics and what they were up to when they visited Illinois).

Obama's the only former member of the Illinois General Assembly to have come back as President to address his former colleagues (which means he's also the only sitting President to have reminisced about the good old days of playing poker with other lawmakers, and to have noshed on barley soup from The Feed Store sandwich shop downtown while he was at it).

But he's the fourth sitting President to have formally addressed state lawmakers. Before him, Presidents William Howard Taft (in 1911) Herbert Hoover (in 1931) and Jimmy Carter (in 1978) did the same.

Barack Obama used the opportunity to call on politicians now and in the future to treat each other -- and government -- with more respect."So I want you to know that this is why I've always believed so deeply in a better kind of politics, in part because of what I learned here in this legislature," he said. "And it convinced me that if we just approached our national politics the same way the American people approach their daily lives -- at the workplace, at the Little League game; at church or the synagogue -- with common sense, and a commitment to fair play and basic courtesy, that there is no problem that we couldn't solve together."

But what about the other Presidents? Why did they come to Illinois? And what did they say to Illinois lawmakers?

I talked to the man whose job it is to know this sort of stuff, or to dig it up: David Joens, director of the Illinois State Archives.

Joens says for Taft and Hoover, addressing the General Assembly was a sort of side note. They were both in Springfield for events in honor of President Abraham Lincoln.

"In Taft's case he accepted an invitation to attend the Abraham Lincoln Association's annual dinner, Lincoln's dinner for Lincoln's birthday. And in Hoover's case it was to rededicate Lincoln's tomb," Joens says.

He says it was a political opportunity for Taft, explaining "he visited Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Three pretty key states, even though it's 1911, a year before the election campaign really heats up."

Joens found some old newspaper clippings of Taft's time in Springfield -- headlines like "Many Side Trips Keep Taft Busy" and "Great Crowds Fill Capitol." They talk a lot about his main speech, at that Lincoln dinner.

When he spoke to Illinois Senators and Representatives, Taft got wonky.

"He talked policy and in fact he only talked one policy issue, which was basically a free trade agreement with Canada. And we do have a transcript of the speech and quite honestly in reading it, it is about as exciting as it sounds,"Joens says.

President Herbert Hoover's remarks to legislators twenty later, ahead of his big campaign for re-election sound even less exciting. Remember, he was there to rededicate Lincoln's tomb, so that was his big appearance; Joens says Hoover's speech to the General Assembly was brief.

"And actually what was interesting about that, in to my mind, was that was a joint session of the General Assembly but they didn't hold it in the House chambers. They actually went across the street to the old arsenal. And had kind of more of a public thing. And he gave very short remarks, basically, acknowledging the General Assembly, thanking Springfield for the visit," Joens says.

President Jimmy Carter began his 1978 speech to a joint session of the General Assembly with a reference to Lincoln.

"It's an honor for me to be here with you in this historic place from whence has come so many profound statements and deliberations in the history of our country and from which came perhaps the greatest leader who's ever lived in the President's house. I'm very grateful, too, for the political wisdom concentrated here, as well as the governmental wisdom. When I began to plan my own campaign, I talked to present Speaker Redmond. He told me how to win an election, easily and quickly," Carter said. "I know that appearances here have proven to be very good in future Presidential elections; I think the last President who spoke here, according to the news media, was Herbert Hoover ..."

(Thanks to my friends Tony Yuscius and James Carder of Blue Room Stream/Advanced Digital Media for audio of Carter's address; because of them we can actually hear what Carter said to Illinois lawmakers -- and hear their laughter, applause, even their coughs).

That opening joke turned out to be ill-omened.

I found the rest of the speech -- or lack thereof -- fascinating. You see, the "speech" itself was also brief. It touched on the same theme as President Obama's Illinois address. Like Obama, Carter began with reflections on his own time as a State Senator, from Georgia.

"And I came to realize then the extreme importance of state government. The difficulties of public service. The courage required to make decisions on controversial issues. Because almost every issue that comes here is difficult to resolve. If a matter is easy, it's solved in a family's home, or perhaps in a neighborhood or city call or county courthouse," Carter said. "If it's much more difficult it comes to your desk. And eventually come to the attention of the Congress of the United States and the President. I know the pressures that come on members of government to try to deal fairly with their own constituents, and still look at statewide problems and needs and even those at the national and international scene."

That was apparently an off the cuff comment. Carter did that I can't fathom many politicians doing today: the bulk of his time he opened up to a question and answer session with lawmakers.

"This morning I have prepared a speech text which has been distributed, or will be to you. I prepared it myself and I think perhaps you might want to read it over. But I thought in order to have more constructive session for me: that I would make a very few impromptu remarks, and then spend what time we have together answering your questions," he said.

Carter touched on tax reform, the unemployment rate, and the SALT arms treaty with Russia.

Then, true to his word - he did an open, public Q&A, with state legislators.

Some almost sound like they could have been asked today; a couple of questions were focused on labor law, and improving Illinois' economy and business climate, like when Alton Democratic Rep. Jim McPike asked: "Illinois, as a northern, industrial State, in the past 10 years has lost many manufacturing jobs to the South. To a large degree we feel that this is due to nonunion wages that are prevalent in the Sunbelt. We therefore feel that passage of the labor law reform bill now in Congress is very important. Could you comment on its importance and on its chance of passage?"

(Later a Republican who had a different mindset got got to ask a follow-up on labor law).

Other questions focused on the Equal Rights Amendment, the Social Security tax's effect on inflation, the concerns of the Jewish community about Israel, and the plights of minority employment and housing in urban areas.

Carter wrapped it up by circled back to his original theme, saying to deal with each of those and other issues, saying "the insurance that we have that we make those decisions properly is to stay close to the people who put us in office. And this is one of the elements I think that's been missing too much in our political structure in the last few years. Because there's been a building up, of distrust against government. And a chasm has opened between government and people. And that can be resolved only by you and me. We live in the greatest nation on earth and I hope that with your help, the Congress's help and the help of all American people in the years ahead we can make it even great than it is."

See what I mean? Some 38 years later, Carter's remarks bear a striking resemblance to Obama's.

If you want to hear for yourself, audio -- and a transcript -- of President Obama's address is on our website.

This has been: The Players - your guide to who's who in Illinois politics, and what they're up to.