Did Lee’s State of the State speech set a modern record at 57 minutes?

Senate Finance Chairman Bo Watson (R-Chattanooga) and others check their watches awaiting the time for Gov. Bill Lee, right, to enter the House chamber to deliver his first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s first State of the State address clocked in at 57 minutes last night, leading to speculation about whether it set a record for length. Our deep-dive into the newspaper archives doesn’t provide a conclusive answer, but most examples we found have been much shorter.

Frank Clement, who was governor for 10 years in the 1950s and 1960s, is best-known for an evangelical oratorical style that culminated in his keynote address to Democratic presidential convention in 1956, which he punctuated with the phrase “How long, America, O how long?” The audience loved it, but the speech was panned by pundits. And the 43-minute speech came to be seen as ending Clement’s national political aspirations.

Clement’s State of the State addresses (which were then delivered to the Tennessee Press Association’s annual convention) tended to run between 1,500 and 2,000 words, or about 12 to 15 minutes, as prepared. Ad libs and asides would cause those speeches to expand to about 20 to 35 minutes on delivery.

Scandal-plagued Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton tended to keep his speeches to lawmakers to about 30 minutes, including the final one he delivered just days before he was deposed in favor of Gov.-elect Lamar Alexander in 1979.

Republican Gov. Don Sundquist spent 30-minutes in his 1999 State of the State speech that stunned lawmakers by calling for the sales tax on groceries to be eliminated while launching an overhaul on other state taxes. Many saw it as the first step toward an income tax proposal, which turned out to be right.

Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen spoke for just 18 minutes in his 2004 State of the State speech.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s first State of the State address was 34 minutes in 2011. In 2014 and 2015, Haslam spoke for 40 minutes. But by 2016 he was back down to 30 minutes, a mark he hit again in his final State of the State last year.

Lee’s speech as prepared for delivery was 5,994 words long.

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