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.