Call me nostalgic, but I miss traditional State of the Union addresses.

Yes, I realize I am the last – OK, maybe not the last – person who should be talking about this. It was, after all, a Republican who shattered the tradition of decorum during State of the Union addresses, where everybody – including members of leadership – was supposed to express merely polite disdain at policies and people they despised. Lest you forget, South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson (embarrassingly, a Republican) cast himself into the annals of history by shouting “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. He was rightly browbeaten by the press and his own party for it. Wilson eventually called the White House to apologize.

That’s right, back then – 15 long years ago – a congressman felt that he ought to apologize for heckling a president. That was back when we all used to have manners and at least pretend to be a functioning democracy. Back then, members of his own party denounced him. Now, sadly, heckling and worse has become par for the course.

Not only are opposition members of Congress increasingly inclined to interrupt and harass the president during the State of the Union, the president is more likely to respond. We saw this way back in 2009, when Obama actually responded to Wilson’s heckle; he would have been better advised to ignore it and continue on. Now, unfortunately, we’re at the point where presidents not only respond to interruptions during such addresses, they engage their hecklers and are proud of it.

In Britain, they have a heckling tradition, Prime Minister’s Questions. There, the prime minister is himself a member of Parliament, and he must face weekly questioning from the opposition. During those questions, opposition members frequently yell, bang their desks and interrupt. If that seems surprising, given that we consider Brits to be generally more polite than us – reinforced by their own stereotypical views of us – consider that it’s a different format.

The British prime minister also delivers a formal annual address, albeit delivered through the queen – or now, the king. It’s a chance for the monarch to address the government, and while it’s written by the majority in Parliament, usually neither side responds until after. That’s closer to the way State of the Union addresses used to be handled in this country. They were respectful, positive speeches, outlining the government’s priorities for the coming year and reviewing their accomplishments of the year gone by. The opposition party waited until the end to deliver its response.


Somehow, we have managed to conflate the worst aspects of both British events. While members of Congress never sat in stony silence during State of the Union addresses, they at least didn’t usually shout or interrupt; that much was frowned upon. They’d sit in unhappy silence, disapproving of the remarks, or they’d stand and applaud. That was it. The president, in turn, would generally try to lay out a positive agenda and reflection of their accomplishments, rather than using the opportunity to attack his opponents. In the past, the State of the Union was a unifying moment for the country. Even if you disagreed with the president, you could let him make his remarks and rebut him afterwards. Unfortunately, that tradition has been degraded.

Although Republicans are largely to blame, it takes two to tango. Rather than engaging his hecklers, President Biden could have ignored them and continued on with his speech. Indeed, if he had, he might have avoided the liberal mortal sin of using the term “illegal” instead of “undocumented immigrant” and been spared an awkward apology. Instead, he lent further legitimacy to his opponents, elevating them rather than denigrating them as he might have intended.

It’s sad that both major-party presidential candidates seem to feel perfectly comfortable attacking their opponents directly. That’s a common approach in politics, but it’s one that presidential candidates – especially those who have actually been president – used to at least pretend to avoid. This year, both nominees seem to be leaning in to that approach. While it’s going to work for one of them, it’s a sad trend for our country, one that should disappoint us all.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
Twitter: @jimfossel

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