It began in 1983 as the congressional version of a high-school gag.
Frustrated that once again they would be reduced to extras in the over-produced spectacle of a Ronald Reagan State of the Union address, House Democrats secretly plotted their revenge. When the advance text of the president's remarks circulated on Capitol Hill the day of the speech, Tip O'Neill's merry pranksters highlighted an innocuous sentence towards the end of the speech: "We who are in government must take the lead in restoring the economy."
When Reagan read this line on cue, House Democrats erupted as if the president had just announced V-J Day. Rising to their feet in celebration, Democrats lustily cheered this backhanded acknowledgement of the federal role in the economy as if the Gipper had proclaimed, "The era of Big Government is back." The president immediately realized that he was being razzed by Democratic street theater. Reagan ad-libbed, referring to the advance text, "I thought you were all reading the paper." That jibe prompted to Republicans to reward their president with a standing ovation.
From these light-hearted roots -- pranking a president who could enjoy a joke -- grew an insidious tradition of hard-edged partisanship. By 1987, New York Times columnist William Safire, a former Richard Nixon speechwriter with a connoisseur's appreciation of the rituals of the presidency, was lamenting the sorry state of the State of the Union address. Organized rooting sections, including the Cabinet and guests in the balcony, had -- in Safire's words -- "transmogrified the event from dutiful report and respectful hearing into a clash between branches of government."
Those were, of course, the good old days before a congressman impulsively shouted "You lie!" during a presidential speech to Congress (Barack Obama's 2009 health care address) and a Supreme Court justice mouthed the words "not true" in dissent during the 2010 State of the Union. Like so many partisan rituals on Capitol Hill, the syncopated standing ovations from one party and angry grimaces from the other party fail to sway voters watching at home. All these pep-rally gimmicks do is to contribute to the cynical public's conviction that politics on Capitol Hill are sophomoric when they are not vitriolic.
But in the sad-eyed wake of the Arizona massacre, State of the Union civility is making a dramatic comeback. The Third Way
, a centrist Democratic think tank, proposed Monday in an open letter to the congressional leaders
in both parties an end "to partisan seating for the State of the Union." Their rationale: "Perhaps having both parties sit together, intermingled, would help control the choreography of partisanship that accompanies the president's remarks."
Unlike most high-minded notions in Washington (which fare about as well as the drive to make Esperanto the universal language), the proposal to end segregated seating in the chamber of the House of Representative during the State of the Union seems to have hit the moment. "It's an idea that we've been thinking about for a while," said Jim Kessler, the vice president policy at the Third Way. "And with the shooting of Gabby Giffords and the general feeling of collective remorse, we decided to put it out."
by Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, an honorary co-chairman of the Third Way, the nostrum was also blessed by The Washington Post in an editorial
: "This would be a gesture, but gestures matter." In normal times, newspaper editorial pages are where good-government ideas go to die. But these are not normal times. Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Steny Hoyer, the second ranking House Democrat, issued statements Thursday announcing that they would discuss the open-seating plan with their Republican counterparts next week.
The phrase "across the aisle" may be one of the most tedious Capitol Hill clichés
, but the symbolism embedded in physically entering the other party's space remains powerful. During a thoughtful discussion of the filibuster during the opening session of the Senate last week, Kansas Republican Pat Roberts walked over to Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin in an I-come-in-peace gesture. Moments later, Harkin made his own pilgrimage to the Republican section of the Senate chamber.
When Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Jan. 25, it may take more than bipartisan seating arrangements -- or even exiling a few potential loudmouths to the quiet car -- to suspend the rancorous divisions in Congress. Television cameras will still zoom in to highlight who is wildly applauding and who is sitting with their arms tightly folded. The temptation will remain to judge the president's popularity and the future of his legislative agenda based on a crude Applause Meter.
But Obama could change all that -- and bring a new tone of gravity to the State of the Union -- by uttering a simple sentence early in the speech: "In light of the grave problems facing the nation, I request that anyone who is tempted please refrain from applause until the end of the address."
With America fighting two wars, with unemployment still near double-digit levels and with the national debt at staggering levels, this is not a moment for irrational exuberance from either party. These are sad times, for the state of the union is deeply troubled. That is why the best way to honor this constitutionally mandated moment -- and to respect the ordeal of Gabby Giffords -- is to greet the president's words on Jan. 25 with the sounds of silence.