The State of the Theatrical

In the process of searching for a video of last night’s State of the Union address with the applause edited out (no luck, by the way, although such a video does exist for the 2011 SOTU), I came across this article about how the SOTU became an “applause-fest.” Naturally, it was a Republican’s fault (emphasis mine):

But just as significant as the amount of clapping has been an increase in its partisan tenor, which didn’t emerge until the eighties. Before then, “both political parties were internally divided and each party had a liberal and a conservative wing,” Senate historian Donald Ritchie told Daily Intelligencer. “So if a president made a conservative pitch he was appealing to conservatives in both parties and if he made a liberal pitch he was appealing to the liberals in both parties.” By the time of the Reagan administration, “the cheering squad started up.”

Just out of curiosity, I went looking for a video of one of Jimmy Carter’s SOTU speeches. Here’s the one from January 1978. You’ll have to click through to watch…I couldn’t get it to embed properly in the post, and YouTube only had clips.

By contrast, here’s Ronald Reagan’s SOTU from 1982:

An interesting note: As you can see, a search for Carter sotu did not readily return videos in the search results…nobody wants to see or hear that crap, I guess. Reagan sotu, on the other hand, turned up results for several years.

Perhaps that explains the applause: There’s something about hearing a strong, enthusiastic leader that makes you want to stand up and cheer. Compared to the tired, miserable delivery of Carter, Reagan projected energy and passion; he gave people a reason to cheer.

A story from the New York magazine piece (emphasis mine):

In 1982, Democratic congressman Dennis Eckart of Ohio was so intrigued by the “over-the-top” synchronized cheering from Republicans that he went across the aisle and picked up a copy of Reagan’s remarks. They differed in one key respect from the remarks distributed to Democrats: Specific applause cues were peppered throughout. So the next year, Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill acquired an early copy of Reagan’s text and decided that Democrats would all cheer at the vaguely pro-government sentiment that “we who are in government must take the lead in restoring the economy.”

National Journal’s George E. Condon Jr. writes that Reagan was flustered but “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. Duelling standing ovations, often triggered by the most banal comment, were here to stay.”

So yes, the SOTU has become a sort of contest. Yes, it did sort of start during Reagan’s term, and there was some orchestration of the applause. But you can’t force the kind of enthusiasm Reagan commanded. He loved America, and it was contagious.

Naturally, leave it to Democrats to bastardize the event and then point the finger of blame elsewhere. Why can’t they just let someone be happy?

Speaking of happy, I still haven’t watched Obama’s SOTU. Perhaps I’m better off…

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