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Please hold your applause until the State of the Union improves

January 26, 2011 - Rob Weaver
As State of the Union addresses go, I thought the latest one was an improvement.

Tuesday night, President Barack Obama delivered the annual speech to a joint session of Congress in which members of both major parties were seated together instead of on opposite sides of the aisle. Perhaps that is why the speech last night seemed to be interrupted by applause fewer times.

Both changes are for the better. In modern times, the address has become a political pep rally,

Wasn’t always thus. George Washington and John Adams presented live updates to Congress, but Thomas Jefferson delivered his in writing -- establishing a tradition for the next 112 years. Of course, live coverage -- not counting telegraph reports -- wasn’t available until Marconi made his mark. Calvin Coolidge gave his address on the radio in 1923. Harry Truman delivered his address on TV in 1947.

But Lyndon Johnson was the first to take it prime time, interrupting regular programming in 1965. Since then, there was an increasing aura of a live, televised competition to a State of the Union address. The only thing missing was a clap-o-meter like those used in some old TV game shows. Reporters covering the event -- perhaps as an exercise to maintain attention -- actually counted the number of times a president had to pause during the applause.

Ronald Reagan’s address in 1982 made this observation formal: Advance copies of the address provided to Republicans in Congress had “(APPLAUSE)” written throughout as cues to help Reagan set a record for ovations, according to recount in “A Political History of the State of the Union” by the Atlantic:

“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.”

“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 Dennis Eckart, a freshman representative when Reagan spoke in 1982. "It has taken half-hour speeches and turned them into 70-minute extravaganzas.”

I’d like to hear a president begin a State of the Union address with this:

“Please hold your applause until the end of my address.”

Without this change, I fear the opposition’s response eventually will be given to a live audience — probably prompted by APPLAUSE signs.


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Blog Photos

In this Jan. 27, 2010, file photo, Democrats, including, standing from right, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Md., House Majority Whip James Clyburn of S.C., and Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., applaud President Barack Obama's State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington.