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We're Caught in a Presidential Clap Trap

March 04, 2001|GLENN C. ALTSCHULER and ERIC RAUCHWAY | Glenn C. Altschuler teaches American studies at Cornell University. Eric Rauchway teaches American history at Oxford University

There can be no sound worse than more than two hands clapping, as those of us who watched President Bush's speech to Congress last week know. It was hard to keep track of what the president was saying because he was repeatedly interrupted by applause--88 times, according to ABC's Peter Jennings. Bush got so carried away by the audience he muffed one of his big lines: "Education is not my top priority," he declared firmly. Congress ignored the gaffe and kept on clapping.

This ritual of congressional approval has trivialized political discourse.

As with so much that characterizes presidential politics, the appearance before Congress took its basic shape under Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is in one of these speeches that Americans first heard FDR's impressive baritone say, "Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy," which captured the country's horror over Pearl Harbor. It might be said this also was the start of the presidential sound bite.

Four decades later, Ronald Reagan, the president who turned Roosevelt's constituency and politics inside out, also turned FDR's speeches to Congress on their ear by eschewing bad news in favor of sunny messages and sentimental "hero in the balcony" cameos. Reagan created "the Lenny Skutnik moment," after the man who heroically rescued survivors of a plane crash from the freezing Potomac River.

Since then, presidents have used their addresses to Congress less as arguments for their policies and more as a string of punch lines and guest appearances. Their intention is to signal the media and the American people that they have substantial support in Congress.

President Bush hit the clappers' trifecta with his own take on the Lenny Skutnik moment. He pointed to Rep. Joe Moakley of Massachusetts. (Applause). He wished him well in his fight against cancer. (Sustained applause). He said the best way to help Moakley would be to double the appropriation for the National Institutes for Health. (More applause).

Bush used the same approach with education: "I like teachers so much I married one." (Applause as Laura Bush stood up in the balcony, waving to, you guessed it: more sustained applause.)

The congressional applause-fest ensures that presidents look popular because no matter where the television editors cut the tape, somebody's clapping. And it lets television and print journalists quantify congressional support for the president--88 applause lines is very good, isn't it? Unfortunately, most reporters don't distinguish between applause by everyone and the president's party members clapping. Thus, last week, they concluded that bipartisanship was evident in the chamber when it is by no means clear that it was.

But reporters' enthusiasm for these statistics reduces analysis of more important things. How will President Bush cut taxes, pay down the debt, protect Medicare and Social Security, provide prescription drugs for the elderly and build up the military? Should he be using 10-year revenue projections that even GOP hard-liner Bill Archer, the former head of the House Ways and Means Committee, says come from never-never land?

Instead, the president was allowed to get away with borrowed lines from "Goldilocks" in talking about his budget: "Some say it's too large, some say it's too small. I say it's just right." (Applause.)

Applause is not unknown in other countries' political cultures. The British prime minister gets approval regularly from his party's benches, and if he doesn't, you can be sure constituencies of the MPs who sit on their hands will be short a few bob in the next budget.

But there are differences between the parliamentary culture of Britain and our own. First, while the PM gets cheers from his own benches, he also gets jeers from the opposition. Congress' polite political culture permits no such balance.

Second, the prime minister speaks regularly to the House of Commons because he is a member of it. In the American system, the executive and legislative powers are constitutionally separate, which is why, historically, presidents have sent written messages to Capitol Hill. But there is something monarchically cozy about the way our presidents today appear before the legislature to utter applause lines for obligatory flattery.

There are two cures for the pernicious influence of this kind of "clap trap" in American politics. First, presidents could be kept at their end of Pennsylvania Avenue. They could, as all recent presidents have, address Congress and the U.S. public from the applause-less Oval Office. That would mean giving up their star turns on the Hill, but we might hear more serious cases for their policies.

The second possibility would be to make congressional rules of behavior closer to those at the symphony. Appreciative audience members could clap, but only at the end of the whole piece. Then presidents would get their applause not for a good zinger but for completing an entire composition. (Applause.)

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