Dennis Eckart wasn’t thinking of fundamentally changing the way members of Congress behave at State of the Union addresses when he picked up a document one night in 1982 that had been discarded by a Republican colleague. Then a freshman Democratic congressman from Ohio, Eckart was just curious. But what he found that night set in motion a series of events that now, three decades later, has the United States chief justice decrying the annual speech as a “pep rally” and has many in Congress struggling to present a less partisan face to a public generally scornful of the status quo.
“I remember it vividly,” said Eckart, now a Cleveland lawyer. Like other Democrats, he had marveled at President Reagan’s oratorical skills and had been a little puzzled at how many times his Republican colleagues sprang to their feet to wildly applaud parts of Reagan’s address.
“It was a bit disconcerting to us. It just seemed a little over the top,” said Eckart, who, although just a freshman, was so highly regarded he had been named a party whip. “I walked over to the Republican side, and I leaned over and picked up off the floor a copy of the remarks that Republicans had.”
To his amazement, he saw that the copy differed in one important area from the texts that had been given at the last minute to the Democratic leadership. The copies given to all the Republicans had “(APPLAUSE)” written throughout as cues to help Reagan break all records for ovations.
There was a time when a staple of all reporting on the State of the Union address included a count of how many times a president was interrupted for applause. Lyndon Johnson was famous for always asking aides, as soon as he entered the limousine to return to the White House, how many times he was applauded during the speech. And Reagan’s White House staff, acutely attuned to public perception, knew that network anchormen and reporters would cite that statistic as an early indicator of whether the speech was successful. A former actor, Reagan surely understood that bringing an audience to its feet mattered.
With the evidence collected by Eckart, the Democrats under House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill vowed not to be upstaged again by Reagan and the GOP. On January 25, 1983, when Reagan came for his next State of the Union address, they acquired an early copy of Reagan’s text and scoured it for any line they could pounce on. “We realized this was a battle for perception,” said Eckart. “There was a general sense that we’ve got to find something.... We also thought it would be a little tongue-in-cheek if we could find some words that we liked.”
Finally, they found a single line near the end of the speech, one they felt could help hammer home their belief that government needed to play a bigger role in pulling the country out of recession despite Reagan’s oft-stated free-market, laissez-faire philosophy.
“We who are in government must take the lead in restoring the economy,” said Reagan, triggering a huge roar from now-standing Democrats. Flustered for a second, Reagan quickly recovered and shot back, “And here all that time, I thought you were reading the paper.” It was the Republicans’ turn to roar and applaud their leader’s witty riposte.
From that moment, the State of the Union address was changed forever. Dueling standing ovations, often triggered by the most banal comment, were here to stay.
“The State of the Union has gone from something that was somber, sober, and stuffy to a staged, scripted event that includes applause lines, laugh lines -- and it has lost any measure of spontaneity,” said Eckart.
“It has taken half-hour speeches and turned them into 70-minute extravaganzas. It’s totally discounted any public measurement of approval or rejection of presidential themes because it is clear that the applause now is as scripted as the speeches,” he said.
"It is actually annoying to people," said Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who has worked with groups of voters watching the speeches. “They want to hear what the president has to say. And they don’t want all the partisan interruptions.... You’ve got to remember the American people have only a limited amount of patience for politics, so they want you to get to the point and get off their television.”
The Reagan era was not the first time, of course, that the venerable tradition of the State of the Union had undergone change. The nation’s first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, delivered their addresses in person to Congress, convened first in New York, then Philadelphia, and then in Washington, D.C. beginning in 1800. But Thomas Jefferson viewed the exercise as too monarchical. The requirement that the president annually inform Congress about the state of the union owes its origins to the traditional monarch's message to the British parliament. So Jefferson delivered only a written report.
For the next 112 years, all presidents followed suit. It was not until Woodrow Wilson in 1913 that a president returned to give the address in person to Congress. But it was still a relatively low-key event, with the speech always given early in the day, shoe-horned into the regular activities of Congress.
It gained more importance in 1923, when Calvin Coolidge’s address was the first to be carried on radio. Two decades later, in 1947, Harry Truman was the first to have his address broadcast on television -- though there were fewer than 500,000 TV sets in the country at the time, so the audience was minuscule compared to the 48 million who watched President Obama in 2010.
In 1965, Johnson was the first to move his address to the evening, guaranteeing the large viewership that is now routine and cementing the address as one of the most important events on every president’s calendar. While broadcast networks regularly skip presidential news events that take place in the evening, they're still sensitive enough about their broadcast licenses not to dump the State of the Union address for, say, The Office or CSI: Miami.
Of course, that doesn’t guarantee that the addresses themselves will be either enduring or historic. Most are dominated by the issues of the day. Early addresses were focused on establishing the union, fighting epidemics, conquering Indians, building the railroad, and adjusting tariffs.
In more than 100 years of written reports and another 100 years of spoken addresses, fewer than 10 are considered memorable. James Monroe in 1823 outlined what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. Abraham Lincoln in 1862 detailed how he would end slavery and shorten the Civil War.
“In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free -- honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve,” Lincoln wrote. “We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just -- a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.”
In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt announced his “four freedoms” -- freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
But few State of the Union addresses have risen to this level.
The best documentation of this sad reality came in 1988 in The Washington Monthly when reporter Jonathan Frankel painstakingly assessed the rhetoric of the annual address and found that modern presidents made a fetish out of declaring “war” -- on poverty, cancer, drugs, and hunger, among other things. With two real wars in Asia and the recent tragic shootings in Tucson, don't expect Obama to add martial rhetoric to an already violent world. Instead he's more likely to offer the word “new”, patterned after Wilson’s New Freedom, FDR’s New Deal and John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier.
In 1965, Johnson had a New Partnership among governments at different levels; Richard Nixon, in 1970, had the New Federalism as well as New Beginnings, a New Road for America, and a New Approach for Latin America. The next year, Nixon had the New Partnership, the New Direction, and the New American Revolution. In 1976, Gerald Ford proposed a New Realism and a New Balance between the branches of government.
In 1978, Jimmy Carter called for a New Spirit and a New Partnership between government and the people. The next year, he came up with the most derided of the “New” ideas, proposing a New Foundation -- which was mocked by commentators as something related to women’s undergarments. It was, after all, supposed to be an uplifting speech.
Reagan in 1982 suggested another New Beginning with a New Spirit of Partnership, which came to be called his New Federalism. In 1985, Reagan added his New Freedom and a New Challenge. Bill Clinton later added his New Covenant.
The transcripts do not record whether these “New” propositions received loud applause from members of Congress. In this age that could be dubbed New Ovations, they certainly would bring supporters to their feet -- perhaps gaining the attention of the young Ohio congressman who ushered in the age.
“Do I have any regrets? No. You have to just keep inventing new plays for your playbook,” said former Rep. Eckart, downplaying what he said was “this modest little role I played" in State of the Union history.
On that note, cue the applause for President Obama. And get ready to count how many times he uses the word “new.”