A brief history of Congressional Ovation Coverage at the State of the Union

We don’t know what President Obama will say in his State of the Union address tonight -- whether he’ll make one dad joke or two, or whether he’ll say the union is strong or "not good" -- or whether he will be wearing a blue suit while he says it -- but we do know there will be clapping. And we do know that reporters will spend much time analyzing how much each beat of applause and dash of silence means. Here is a history of that congressional clapping coverage.


This Jan. 25, 1983 file photo shows President Ronald Reagan receiving applause prior to making his State of the Union Address on Capitol Hill in Washington. Vice President George Bush is at left, House Speaker of the House Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. of Mass. is at right. (A Photo/Bob Daugherty, File)

1936: “Republicans refrained from applause Friday night on the theory that they were hearing not the usual message on the state of the Union from the President of the United States but the opening gun in the reelection campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt.” And thus the annual war of the partisan hand mashing commenced. William Safire instead thought that the tradition started during the Reagan administration:

As opposition Congressmen began to take umbrage at being used as a passive backdrop, Speaker Tip O'Neill tried a little trick: passing the word to the Democrats to applaud wildly at some line that would give unintended meaning to what President Reagan said.

Senate historian Donald Ritchie agrees: “'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.’”

1958: By now, presidents and their speechwriters had figured out the perfect type of speech to deal with the never-ending applause – exactly the opposite of the type of languorous prose that reigned in presidential rhetoric for over a century.

One of the drawbacks of the polished literate oratory of which Adlai E. Stevenson is a foremost master is that its effect is often reduced by applause breaking into the beautiful, rounded, balanced sentences and paragraphs which require uninterrupted delivery to drive home their point.

1960: A theory of how points are awarded in the sport of congressional clapping is advanced: “The sport in the galleries is to count the number of times the President is applauded. Advanced scholars are interested in who applauds what. The first burst, for example, came at the very outset and everybody joined in. It was for a plea to make the United States ‘an even more potent resource for peace.’ The President was applauded thirty more times. The Cabinet, which sits in the well of the House, applauded just about everything. The Supreme Court Justices, wearing their robes and seated in the Cabinet circle, applauded practically nothing.”

1974: By President Nixon’s last State of the Union, clapping was seen as such an integral part of the State of the Union that the New York Times thought it prudent to devote two paragraphs to those who refrained from it.

Some Republicans, such as Senator Charles  Mathias Jr. of Maryland, were so preoccupied taking notes that they could not applaud. Others, like Senator Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts, experienced difficulty clapping with their fingers interlaced.

The most startling demeanor was on the Democratic side of the aisle. Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr., chairman of the Watergate Committee, applauded not once. Snickers and grimaces greeted the President’s pledge to protect Americans from such invasion of privacy as “electronic snooping.” When he said that “one limitation” on his cooperation with the House impeachment inquiry would be to do nothing “that weakens the office of the Presidency,” a dozen or so Democrats literally hissed.

1978: Clapping is not the only option members of Congress have for announcing their opinions of a presidential address. During Jimmy Carter’s 1978 State of the Union, “some members seemed to doze, while others repressed yawns.”

1987: D.C. seemed kind of astonished by how out of hand the clapping had gotten at this point. Tom Shales wrote in the Washington Post:

As Tinker Bell lay ill in "Peter Pan," the hero implored everyone in the audience to applaud as a way of proving they believed in fairies. At the State of the Union speech, it was a matter of clapping if you believed in Ronald Reagan. Or just believed Ronald Reagan. The applause was relentless, and ridiculous. It became farcical. The unpleasant impression was of the president being propped up, given artificial rhetorical respiration, by the feverishly voiced approval. This was a movie that its auteur tried to save with special effects, as if he, too, knew the script was stale.

After the speech, ABC News correspondent Brit Hume compared the applause ritual to "the wave" practiced in football stadiums. Phil Jones of CBS News said, "I was absolutely stunned at what occurred on that floor tonight," because the applauders and the nonapplauders were so clearly separated along party lines. Jones said there was "no effort" for bipartisan support and predicted Reagan was "on a collision course ... with the Democratic leaders."

1993: William Safire provided a good reason for the endless applause in a preview of President Clinton’s second State of the Union: “Ask not why the speech is running close to an hour; ask why the assembled solons, Supremes and secretaries are interrupting so often with applause. Because when they are clapping, the camera pans their faces. They seldom clap for the President, no matter who he is; they clap for the camera to give them face time with the American people, whose Union is free and prosperous -- and though testy and self-absorbed, in a fairly good state.”

1995: Having analyzed the meaning of the clapping to death, the Chicago Sun-Times decides to critique the technique.

Who taught Al Gore to clap?

Clapping is one of the major public duties of a vice president, second only to looking somber at state funerals. When the president speaks to Congress-as President Clinton did Tuesday night when he delivered the State of the Union address-the vice president has the sacred duty of sitting above and behind him and leading applause at the right moments.

Yet Al Gore is terrible at it. Not that he doesn't know when to clap-Congress interrupted Clinton's speech with applause 98 times, according to the Associated Press, and I didn't see Gore miss any of them-but that he doesn't know how to clap.

He beats the hams of his palms together with wide, exaggerated movements, and he keeps his hands relatively straight with the fingers relaxed and separated. At best, the effect is reminiscent of a potter trying to turn a lump of clay into a ball; at worst, it recalls a toddler still working on his large motor skills.

It is not a pretty clap or a clap with any authority, though it does seem to have the virtue of being loud. His wife, Tipper, claps the same way, I noted Tuesday, leading me to suspect that one of them learned this grotesque technique from the other.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who sat next to Gore during the speech, also revealed a deficient clap to the free world. Again, too much palm, though not nearly as accessive as the Gores', and he does know to keep his fingers together. Minority Leader Richard Gephardt has the hand interface right, but spreads his fingers in a goofy way; Clinton himself, seen applauding on TV once during the speech, has a prim little clap in which the hands do not quite overlap enough.

2006: At this point, the press, while filing stories on clapping, starts to realize that they might have something to do with the at-this-point Dionysian display of ovation that makes an annual appearance in American politics.

In part, the press is to blame for this. We once treated the clapping as a serious gauge of support. After Kennedy's first State of the Union, the New York Times devoted a separate story to the topic: "Capitol statisticians reported that President Kennedy's State of the Union was interrupted thirty-seven times by applause from one or both sides of the center aisle. … In seven State of the Union appearances before Congress President Eisenhower scored as high as fifty-seven interruptions for applause. … His average was thirty three." If the press was going to take the clapping seriously, what were politicians left to do but get into an arms race?

2007: The Hartford Courant asked manners enthusiasts if it was okay if members of Congress clapped when the President noted their own successes. “The etiquette experts agree: This is not done.”

Martin says the faux pas is understandable for anyone receiving presidential huzzahs on national television. It doesn't happen every day; they're embarrassed and don't know what to do. Ideally, though, such situations call for the ``modest, humbled and pleased'' look.

Cindy Grosso, who operates the Charleston School of Protocol and Etiquette in South Carolina, concurs. Clapping for yourself, she says, is like raising your glass with the others when you're the subject of a toast, another common mistake. It's best to smile, look around and nod your head in thanks.

The Saginaw News in Michigan blames the clapping for making "the State of the Union the most boring, overrated event of the year."

Or, in the vernacular American presidents favor: "Blah Blah blah blah Blah blah blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah." Of those who watch the State of the Union, I wonder how many keep it on because their disappointment in missing a week of "The Unit" has plunged them into a catatonic stupor. Why else would someone sit through 15 minutes of nothing but Congress clapping? The whole speech was 50 minutes. Nearly a third of it was Congress clapping. I'd rather watch a tree stump decompose.

2009: As applause moments have become a tool of Congress to show their support for policies (but mostly empty statements of general approval of America), State of the Union speeches have become tools of the President to earn applause, as Jill Lepore points out. It’s a tough world out there. They take what they can get.

Lim dates the institutionalization of the anti-intellectual Presidency to 1969, when Nixon established the Writing and Research Department, the first White House speechwriting office. There had been speechwriters before, but they were usually also policy advisers. With Nixon’s Administration was born a class of professionals whose sole job was to write the President’s speeches, and who have been rewarded, in the main, for the amount of applause their prose could generate. Of F.D.R.’s speeches, only about one a year was interrupted for applause (and no one applauded when he said that fear is all we have to fear). Bill Clinton’s last State of the Union address was interrupted a hundred and twenty times. The dispiriting transcript reads, “I ask you to pass a real patients’ bill of rights. [Applause.] I ask you to pass common sense gun safety legislation. [Applause.] I ask you to pass campaign finance reform. [Applause.]” For every minute of George W. Bush’s State of the Union addresses, there were twenty-nine seconds of applause.

2011: Clark McPhail is a clapping expert. NPR gave him a call before President Obama’s third State of the Union.

"Advance copies of the speech are examined," McPhail explains, and "partisans pick those assertions with which they agree and arrange to respond with standing ovations. Opponents pick any assertion that even hints at a position they have advocated but which the president has virtually ignored and similarly arrange to respond with standing ovations."

The endless clapping also ensured that there would never be an interesting State of the Union ever again. Dennis Eckhart, a former Democratic representative who helped usher in the craze, told the Atlantic, "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. 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.”

A Senate Republican leader said this year that banning standing ovations would be a good way to make the two parties look more unified.

2013: Justice Antonin Scalia reveals that the Supreme Court watches the chief justice for cues of when it’s ok to applaud. The ABA Journal reported, “It’s OK to clap when the president says the United States is a great country, Scalia said, but not when a statement is made that ‘anybody can disagree with.’”

Former Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson said that "one of the best things about not being in the Senate anymore is not having to sit in that room and either stand up and clap every 15 seconds, or sit on your hands for the whole thing. I just wish so much we would have a moratorium on standing, and let everybody listen like the people outside [in] the country are."

2014: Ed Kilgore, joining the masses who have signaled a similar disgust for decades, introduces us to clapping’s equally entertaining chamberfellow – facial contortions!

I have trouble engaging in such evaluations, being constantly distracted by the idiotic ritual of clapping and not clapping, standing and not standing, and the full range of mime-like facial contortions, to which we will be treated by the Vice President and the Speaker of the House sitting just behind the president.

Roll Call chimes in with their guide of “faces to watch” during the State of the Union, if you need another diversion from listening to President Obama’s policy proposals.

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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Sean Sullivan · January 28