On Tuesday, President Donald Trump will enter the chamber of the House of Representatives to deliver the State of the Union address. Such addresses have devolved from critical conversations with the nation to carefully orchestrated pep rallies for the political party in power. No longer are these speeches measured by the strength of their vision, the power of their policy or the inspiring principles presented. They are scored like a kindergarten popularity contest, with the winner being determined by the length and decibels of the applause.
Last year when the president addressed the nation, he was interrupted with 53 standing ovations — led by the Republican members of the House and Senate. A few historic presidential comparisons: Eisenhower received 57 ovations in his final State of the Union, Kennedy only 37, Clinton 120 and, in an odd twist, Carter's in 1978 was noted for the number of members sleeping or yawning.
In a nod to our narcissism and need for approval, we now have professors who research and study clapping. I am not anti-clapping — it can be a natural reaction to an inspiring or exciting moment — but I reserve most of those for sporting events. And, of course, I have discovered that when my children or colleagues give me a "slow clap," it is not a positive reaction but a sarcastic dig for doing or saying the obvious.
The problem with clapping and standing ovations is that they distract, sometimes on purpose, from the message being sent.
Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered countless speeches that were rarely interrupted by applause. There wasn't even a single clap when he uttered the famous line, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." At Gettysburg, there were undoubtedly more bowed heads than clapping hands. I doubt anyone started "the wave" as the Sermon on the Mount was delivered.
There is something about a speech uninterrupted by chatter, cheering or clapping that enables each listener to enter a personal conversation with the speaker and experience the message in a deeply personal and powerfully transformational way. Breakthrough or "aha" moments are never manufactured by a cheap applause line or sound bite.
Professional speechwriters began to transform how political leaders addressed their audiences as technology allowed applause and ovations to be seen as a signal of support and momentum. The sea change was noted in 1958 with the observation: "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."
To no applause Stevenson said, "Let's talk sense to the American people. Let's tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains, that we are now on the eve of great decisions, not easy decisions. ... What counts now is not just what we are against, but what we are for. Who leads us is less important than what leads us — what convictions, what courage, what faith … "
Imagine what would happen in the State of the Union if the president didn't pass out his remarks to members of Congress in advance so they could see when they are supposed to cheer and stand. Imagine if Trump started his remarks by saying, "I am going to ask everyone in the chamber to sit still for the next 25 minutes — we have an important conversation to have as a country." (I know everyone would break into applause at the prospect of a 25-minute speech versus the hour-plus it usually takes with all the applause.)
Great speeches require sustained effort, energy and focus by both the speaker and the listener. Gratuitous applause and the political posturing that goes with it inhibit and prevent serious thought, transformational ideas and the principles of freedom from reverberating and resonating in the hearts and minds of the hearer. The best of speeches have no need for applause — because wise words, a quiet pause, a skilled turn of phrase, a simple story, a few facts and a crescendo of ideals silently sound their own amen to a message that matters.
As we watch the State of the Union on Tuesday, we may wish to consider where we are headed with such partisan, predictable political speeches. The character Padme in the Stars Wars saga may have provided the answer as she watched the senate raucously cheer as it willingly handed over all of its power to the evil Palpatine. She said, "So this is how liberty dies … with thunderous applause."