One of the danger zones for journalists is describing anything as a “first.”
Reporters generally try to couch a “first-ever” event or action with the phrases “believed to be” or the “first according to so-and-so.”
Why? Because dollars to donuts, someone in the reading public will point out that it wasn’t the first.
That’s what happened to our Sunday story advancing Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland’s speech Monday at the Be Green/Tacoma Shift Happens. Event organizers billed her talk as the first-ever State of the City address by a Tacoma mayor.
I checked with the head of the Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room and with former Tacoma Mayor and historian Bill Baarsma, who agreed that, yes, it was likely the first one based on what they knew of Tacoma history and its form of government.
Northwest Room supervisor Brian Kamens said some Tacoma mayors have given speeches “vaguely similar” to a state of the city address, but it “appears” (see, hedging) that Strickland’s talk was the first (there’s that word again!) officially described as one.
Then on Monday, just hours before Strickland’s speech, Baarsma sent us an e-mail saying that a Richland man who’s writing a biography about former Tacoma Mayor Harry P. Cain said Cain actually gave a State of the City address back in 1942.
I e-mailed back and forth with the author, C. Mark Smith, who said that Cain had written, in effect, a State of the City address to the City Council:
“The letter is not officially titled a State of the City address, but the language Cain uses, referring to the part of the Charter that requires a mayor to report on ‘features and changes believed to be Important,’ qualifies it as a State of the City Address in my book. That’s certainly what it was.”
Smith doesn’t know if Cain ever read the letter aloud but he speculates, “knowing Cain, he almost certainly delivered it verbally and milked as much PR out of it as he could.”
So was Strickland’s talk the first “State of the City” address? It depends on your definition. Here’s how Wikipedia defines a State of the City Address or Speech: A “speech customarily given once each year by the mayors of many cities in the United States and Canada.”
By the way, you can check out Smith’s book, “Raising Cain: The Life and Politics of Senator Harry P. Cain,” when it’s published later this month. Here’s the website.
Below are portions of the e-mails from author C. Mark Smith to The News Tribune. (To entice you to read on: the e-mail does mention pin balls and prostitution.)
“The letter is not officially titled a State of the City address, but the language Cain uses, referring to the part of the Charter that requires a mayor to report on ‘features and changes believed to be important,’ qualifies it as a State of the City Address in my book. That’s certainly what it was. I don’t have his radio scripts here, but I would not be surprised if he referred to it as a State of the City address in any radio reference to it. In terms of what the media called it, you’d have to check the press reports.
“I don’t know what you have in the TNT archives, but Harry’s daughter and I donated 18 scrapbooks full of Cain clippings from his terms as Mayor to the WSHS a few months ago. They are probably not archived yet, but you could contact Ed Nolan at the Research Center and I’m sure he would provide you with access to them. One of them will cover this timeframe. It would almost certainly include clippings covering his letter/address. Cain would have made sure they were in his scrap book. He also wouldn’t have made it/written it without notifying and briefing the reporters from the Trib and the Times.
“I’m not sure Cain delivered it verbally as an address, or just presented it to the Council. But, knowing Cain, he almost certainly delivered it verbally and milked as much PR out of it as he could. What I have is a written copy in the form of a letter to the Council on COT letterhead, dated September 11, 1942. It begins: “In keeping with that section of the charter which directs the Mayor to report from time to time upon those features and changes believed by him to be important and of benefit to the citizenry, and because it has been my privilege and joy to have served Tacoma for a period now exceeding two years, I am desirous of submitting, as Mayor, several observations and recommendations and of suggesting, as the Commissioner of Public Welfare, a course of procedure to be followed by the Health Department in the future.” (he was in the middle of his campaign to suppress prostitution. It didn’t work. He had to revert a strategy of repressing prostitution that did work – at least for a while. )
“The major points he covered in his address (in typical Cain fashion listed 1, 2, 3 etc.) were: 1) Power and Industry, 2) Public Housing, 3) Planning, 4) Seattle-Tacoma Airport, 5) Harmonizing of Military and Civilian Relationships, 6) Suppression of Commercialized Prostitution, 7) Administrative Sessions of the City Council, 8) Civilian Defense, 9) Pin Ball Machines, 10) The Parking Meters, 11) The Retirement System, and 12) Garbage Trucks. He ended with three single-spaced pages of comments about his efforts with the Heath Department to suppress prostitution and reduce venereal disease.
“You also may not know that Cain was a trained newspaperman. He had served as editor of both his high school and college newspapers and year books. His skill was so good that Coleman Harwell, the executive editor of the Nashville Tennessean, arranged for Cain to be hired as a reporter for the New York Times upon graduation from Sewanee. He had the job offer in his hand when he returned home to Tacoma to find his father in poor health and made a decision to stay in Tacoma.
“The original of the copy I have is at the Northwest Room at the Tacoma Public Library. Ask Jeanne Fisher or one of the other reference librarians to try to find it for you. Cain would also have discussed his report/address on his weekly radio program on KMO. His hand-typed scripts of 128 radio broadcasts are at the Washington State Historical Society Research Center in MS -55. There is a file called radio scripts, I think. Look for the ones just before or after the above date.
“I rather doubt that he made another similar address. He entered the Army in March or April 1943 and returned back in September, I think, 1945. There was the report he commissioned soon after he became Mayor on planning for the future of Tacoma which came out in 1944 after Cain was on Ike’s staff at SHAEF. It was called “Tacoma – The City We Build.” The commission ignored it at the time, but many of its recommendations were ultimately completed including the library, the county-city building, Shuster Parkway, and the convention center. Actually the Library may have a copy of that too. I don’t.”