The State of the Union doesn't always go according to script

President Obama gave a preview of his State of the Union speech, which he will deliver on Tuesday.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2011; 10:40 PM

Here's a side of the State of the Union speech you don't get to see on television: Every year, early on the day of the address, lawmakers begin staking out seats along the center aisle of the House chamber. If the need arises to leave for a moment as the hours wear on, they'll drape a suit jacket or a hometown newspaper over the back of the chair to hold claim to that precious bit of real estate.

The goal of all that waiting is a presidential handshake, maybe an autograph on a copy of the speech - and a fleeting moment of television exposure before an audience that last year was nearly half the size of the Super Bowl's.

Capitol Hill veterans have a nickname for the ritual. In a family newspaper, it probably should be paraphrased as "Rump-Kissers' Alley."

The Constitution requires that the president "from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union." But the framers didn't give much guidance as to how.

In modern times, the address has become a production - part theater, part pep rally - that says as much about the state of our culture.

It has often been a raucous affair, and this year President Obama's newly empowered GOP opposition will be onstage as well - most visibly over his left shoulder, where John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) will replace Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in the chair reserved for the House speaker.

Yet partisan catcalls might not be in order, given the national desire for civility that arose after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 18 others earlier this month.

Some of the victims' family members and the hospital workers who cared for them will be watching the proceedings from the gallery.

And the audience on the chamber floor will be receiving more attention than usual, thanks to an effort by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and the centrist group Third Way to encourage lawmakers to sit with members of the other party.

That scrambled seating is likely to mean fewer pseudo-spontaneous outbursts, with those on one side of the chamber or the other leaping to their feet at a line they like, while those on the other sit scowling silently.

On this most scripted of evenings, there is still the potential for mishap - and improvisation.

Bill Clinton was still writing his first State of the Union speech as his limo carried him to the Capitol in 1993. He stuck to the prepared text for the first four words.

George W. Bush, on the other hand, wanted everything locked down 48 hours in advance, saying there should be no "cram ins" at the end, his former press secretary Dana Perino recalled.

As the speech nears its end, many in the chamber - particularly junior lawmakers - will have their eye on the exit, eager to dash for the microphones in Statuary Hall. There, they will deliver the "reaction" that they and their staffs came up with hours and days before the president uttered a word.

Then again, for much of the country's history, the State of the Union wasn't even a speech. Although the first two presidents gave yearly addresses, Thomas Jefferson decided in 1801 that anything so resembling the British monarch's annual Speech From the Throne was too "kingly" for a young country fresh from a revolution. He submitted his in writing, as did the next two dozen of his successors.

Not until Woodrow Wilson in 1913 did a president again deliver an address to a joint session of Congress. A Washington Post headline the day before that speech heralded the radical move: "Washington is amazed." However, the newspaper reassured the city's traumatized citizens that this practice was "not to become a habit."

It did, of course. But Jefferson need not have feared any excess of hauteur.

In 1997, Clinton found himself sharing a split screen with the O.J. Simpson civil trial verdict; two years later, the president gave his speech while his impeachment trial in the Senate was underway.

Whatever their circumstances, presidents have come to appreciate the value - and see the opportunity - in delivering this annual address, especially after it began being broadcast on radio (with Calvin Coolidge) and television (with Harry S. Truman). Lyndon B. Johnson moved it from the daytime to the evening, to maximize the audience.

"It's the only time in a year when a President gets the chance to speak to the American people, unfiltered, for a whole hour," Clinton wrote in his memoir, "and I wanted to make the most of it."

He's not the only one.

The late congressman G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery (D-Miss.), who was something of a pioneer along the center aisle, used to counsel junior members to sit next to him if they wanted to be sure to snag a presidential handshake.

But Montgomery was a piker compared with some who followed.

In 2007, then-freshman Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) - another regular in the alley - made her first big impression on the country by grabbing Bush on his way out of the chamber. She planted a kiss on him and managed to hang on to him for a full 30 seconds before he was able to escape.

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