Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Note to Congress: When Obama Speaks, Hold the Applause

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Note to Congress: When Obama Speaks, Hold the Applause

Article excerpt

George W. Bush's last State of the Union message was interrupted with applause nearly 70 times. His speech was just 53 minutes long, which means clapping (much of it awkwardly partisan) halted proceedings every 45 seconds or so.

For a lame-duck president not known for gifted oratory, that might be a welcome statistic.

For Barack Obama, a rhetorical master in his presidential honeymoon, it should serve as impetus for change.

When he delivers his major speech to the joint session of Congress later this month, he has an excellent opportunity to restore dignity by actively discouraging superfluous applause. If he succeeds, he can stop this high-profile stage for the world's model for democracy from sinking into a Soviet-style sham.

Years ago, students of Kremlin politics eagerly awaited the Soviet Communist Party's periodic congresses as an opportunity to get an inside peek. One particular index measured the amount and intensity of applause each speaker received.

In transcripts of the proceedings, Soviet editors carefully indicated and even graded each well-choreographed outburst. They ranged from simple "applause "to "stormy applause," "prolonged applause," "stormy and prolonged applause," to such heights as "stormy, prolonged applause, ovation, all rise. Cheers. Shouts of 'Long live the Leninist Central Committee.' " The rule was simple: the more noise, the stronger the speaker's position.

While useful for Kremlinologists, the whole display was distasteful. Delegates obediently and mechanically clapped, jumped up and down and shouted, apparently on cue, in a display better suited to a petty third-world dictatorship. Did the Soviet leaders need such transparently artificial validation in the eyes of their public? What did this tell us about the Soviet system and the people who ran it? History provided an answer.

But it is not just a matter of tin-horn dictatorships and the unlamented Soviet Union. Washington's leaders should consider how they look to America and to the world in the closest parallel we have to a Soviet Party Congress: the State of the Union message (or a joint-session speech such as Mr. …

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