Note to Congress: When Obama speaks, hold the applause

Excessive congressional clapping rivals contrived Soviet outbursts.

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. Obama will give this month). The 70 bursts of applause in Bush's final state message was just the latest example of a trend that's been building for decades. It's a development that would have made Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev proud.

Are the members of Congress really roused to such wild jubilation over each announcement of a marginal change in administration policy, or are the party faithful simply outdoing themselves to show devotion to their leader?

At each address, I cringe with embarrassment and irritation at a show better suited to Pyongyang than to Washington. It diminishes the dignity of the occasion and serves no worthy purpose.

It can and should be changed, and if a new precedent is to be set, the initiative must come from the president. It helps immensely that we now have a president with a sense of style as well as a self-confidence that seems to need minimal stroking.

Obama has pledged repeatedly to change the tone in Washington. His effort to promote a dignified atmosphere for his joint-session speech would go a long way toward doing just that. In addition to letting members of Congress know now, he could reiterate the request for minimal applause at the beginning of the speech.

If he feels compelled to follow recent tradition and introduce some notable figure in the audience, then let them be applauded. Otherwise, there are important things he needs to tell us in these difficult days and the 10 percent or more of the available time that otherwise gets devoted to applause can be put to much better use. Perhaps even for spelling out ideas and plans that will warrant one genuine and credible bout of "stormy, prolonged applause – all rise – and shouts." At the end of the speech.

Thomas P. Thornton is adjunct professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

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