State of Union speeches do not warrant applause
Add pompoms and a beer commercial to last week's presidential address to Congress, and the event could have been mistaken for a Harvard-Yale athletic contest.
The distracting and childish cheering by congressional members that now marks every State of the Union address borders on ironic, given how serious they are about the formality of the occasion and the etiquette rules they follow before the speech even begins.
The processional of Supreme Court justices, Cabinet members and the Joint Chiefs of Staff is meticulously scripted. The president is announced with a flourish. A pre-selected escort committee -- half from the House, half from the Senate -- follows the president into the hall.
"To me, a lot of this political pageantry is like the talent portion of the Miss America contest," said Ken Collier, associate professor of political science at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. "They keep doing it, but it's not really the heart of the matter."
No male lawmaker would dream of entering that chamber wearing anything less than a suit and tie, yet they behave like tipsy frat boys should the commander in chief mention one of their pet projects in his policy shopping list.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa provided a particularly unflattering moment on Tuesday by popping up and hee-hawing like the village idiot when President Bush mentioned the need for ethanol as alternative to fossil fuels.
It's no coincidence that the cameras were on one of the ag boys at that moment. Broadcast news producers had advanced drafts of the speech. They knew precisely whom to target for maximum reaction on each topic addressed.
The only people who run no risk of being caught acting a fool are the Supreme Court justices. Beyond applauding as the president enters and exits the room, they sit on their hands throughout, maintaining that veil of impartiality. And the military joint chiefs only respond to statements about military policy. They remain seated and silent when it comes to the domestic agenda.
Nothing in Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution, which provides for the annual message, says the information must be delivered orally. It doesn't even have to be annual: "He shall 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."
George Washington gave the first report in person in 1790. Thomas Jefferson presented his in writing, complaining that convening Congress for the speech smacked of a royal audience. More than a century lapsed before Woodrow Wilson revived Washington's tradition, speaking directly to Congress in his 1913 proposal for economic regulations.
The presidents following Wilson -- Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover -- fulfilled their constitutional obligation in writing.
Thomas Alan Schwartz, professor of modern U.S. history at Vanderbilt University, said it comes as little surprise that Franklin D. Roosevelt preferred the in-person approach. "Roosevelt revived the speech and, as he did with almost every other feature of modern American politics, set the stage for what is now the norm, presenting his message in person."
Roosevelt, by the way, was the first to call it the "State of the Union" address; before that, it was known as the "annual message."
Roosevelt's addresses were given in the daytime, Schwartz said; prime-time speeches were a creation of Lyndon B. Johnson.
Johnson's staff was the first to track applause interruptions, using them to compare LBJ's reception to those of his hero, FDR, according to SFA's Collier. But Johnson's speechwriters didn't stop there. They started implanting applause lines in the text.
"Johnson would have copies of the draft circulated to selected members in the audience with applause lines marked," said Collier, who is researching and writing a book about presidential speechwriters.
Given how seriously speechwriters take every word and phrase they craft, one wonders if they, too, wish lawmakers would sit quietly and just listen.
"It does interrupt the flow of the speech," Collier said. "Lines get stepped on by the outbursts. I don't know why some of the producers of the drama don't warn them to applaud less because they're stepping on the best lines."
Alas, the applause genie is out of the bottle. Once TV cameras entered the chamber, the stakes ratcheted up.
"Each side is trying to convey to the viewing audience their level of support for or against an idea," Collier said.
"Let's face it, the State of the Union isn't directed at Congress anymore," said Adam Warber, assistant professor of political science at South Carolina's Clemson University. "Presidents use it to speak over the heads of Congress and directly to the public. Congress responds by speaking to the public -- with applause and cheers for the policies they support.
"Presidents and lawmakers feel they don't have much opportunity to convey messages to the public that aren't first filtered through the media," Warber said. "For those 40 minutes, they control the message."
Jill "J.R." Labbe is deputy editorial page editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.