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Political Theater

January 23, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

SPOKESMAN: Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States. ( Cheers and applause )

ROGER MUDD: That’s the way the State of the Union usually begins, with the blue suits and the red dresses lined up along the center aisle just hoping to be seen with the president. When George Washington did it in person for the first time more than 200 years ago, it all seemed so simple and so brief — 833 words, or about five-and-a-half minutes. But then Jefferson put a stop to the in-person part.

He thought it presumptuous. And for the next 112 years, presidents did it in writing, until 1913, when Woodrow Wilson went to the Hill himself. Since then, each of Wilson’s successors, all 15 of them, have gone to the Hill.

In 1923, Calvin Coolidge’s State of the Union became the first to be broadcast by radio. And in 1947, when television first carried Harry Truman’s message, the State of the Union ceased to be George Washington’s modest document, but the occasion for full-blown political showmanship.

Ronald Reagan, the ultimate showman, began recognizing current heroes he’d invited to sit with the first lady in the gallery. Remember Lenny Skutnik in 1982? He dove into the Potomac to save a passenger from the 14th Street Bridge plane crash. But now the gallery hardly has room for all the heroes and all the celebrities.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The current president of the Iraqi Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi.

ROGER MUDD: Not only Iraqis, but also nuns and ministers and NFL quarterbacks and ex- offenders and pro basketball stars. No glowing first lady ever goes unrecognized by her husband or unapplauded by the Congress. Bill Clinton once mouthed the words “I love you” to Hillary back when she was first lady. But television has it all in sync. A presidential mention of terrorism gets you a shot of Tom Ridge.

The Iraq war gets you the joint chiefs, fused at the hip. The Patriot Act: John Ashcroft. The troops: The troops. Medical care: Tommy Thompson. Electricity: Spencer Abraham. And so on. That’s because the White House has given the congressional TV director an advance copy of the speech, so the control room knows exactly which shot to use and when. “Applauding” is not quite the word for what politicians do during the State of the Union. They seem more like puppets chained together and yanked out of their seats all at once by invisible wires which are somehow connected to their party leaders.

SPOKESMAN: The president of the United States.

ROGER MUDD: Republicans used to watch Newt Gingrich when he was speaker. If Newt applauded, they applauded; if Newt frowned, they frowned. Now they watch Vice President Cheney and/or Speaker Hastert.

The Democrats used to take their cues from Vice President Gore when he was up there behind Clinton, but now they don’t have anybody to watch except maybe Teddy Kennedy looking very much like a sculpted Irish lord.

On Tuesday, President Bush’s State of the Union ran 54 minutes. He was interrupted by applause 70 times. That’s an average of once every 46 seconds. Mike Waldman, one of Bill Clinton’s speech writers, said the Democrats used to applaud their president’s semicolons. The New York Times recently used the phrase “the tyranny of the standing ovation,” not only on Broadway, but also on Capitol Hill, how the highest compliment has become virtually meaningless.

Another thing about the State of the Union: One member of the Cabinet is told not to come, in the unlikely event a catastrophe kills the president and all 18 officials in the line of succession. So one Cabinet secretary is sent to an undisclosed location so there will always be a president.

Tuesday night it was Commerce Secretary Donald Evans. Back in 1990, under George Bush Sr., it was Veterans Affairs Secretary Ed Derwinski. Derwinski’s secure undisclosed location, by the way, turned out to be the basement of a northern Virginia pizza parlor. Don’t laugh. It’s all show business. I’m Roger Mudd.