NPR

State of the Union Response: A Brief History

How does the political party that doesn't sit in the White House communicate its self-image to the American people? One clue appears annually in a familiar form of political theater: the official rebuttal to the State of the Union address.

Tuesday night, a carefully selected rebutter, newly elected Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, will give the Democratic answer to President Bush's State of the Union address.

As part of NPR's Crossing the Divide Series, political historian Tim Naftali tells Steve Inskeep that rebuttal speeches are an excellent "tell-tale" of how much confidence the "loyal opposition" has in itself, and how popular the sitting president is with the American people.

Naftali reviews some rebuttal speeches during other controversial times, including the Vietnam War. He predicts that given the current low approval ratings for Bush and the Iraq war, Webb's speech will be pointed in its criticism.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

When President Bush finishes his State of the Union Speech tonight, those who do not flip the channel will soon hear an opposing view. Tonight it comes from Jim Webb, the newly elected Democratic senator from Virginia. He follows in a tradition of televised rebuttals that goes back to 1966. That's when a Democrat was president and the rebuttal came from a Republican congressman named Gerald Ford.

Former President GERALD FORD: We are outnumbered 2-to-1 in this Congress. But we will continue to speak out for things in which we believe. We will not sacrifice the ideals that make us Republicans.

INSKEEP: This morning we'll listen to other past rebuttals. It's part of our series Crossing the Divide on our divided government now. And we'll listen to the tape with Timothy Naftali, soon-to-be director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. Good morning.

Mr. TIMOTHY NAFTALI (Future Director, Richard Nixon Presidential Library): Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What can you learn from these speeches?

Mr. NAFTALI: One, you learn about the popularity of the incumbent president. The less popular the president the more likely that you'll see a partisan attack from the loyal opposition. The second thing you're going to see is how the loyal opposition defines itself. Whether Republican or Democratic, the respondent talks about values and how the loyal opposition's values are closer to those of the American people than that of the president.

INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to a couple of speeches from the Vietnam era. The first is also from 1966 when Everett Dirksen, a Republican senator, also got to deliver an opposition speech. And one subject that he brought up was the ongoing war in Vietnam.

Former Senator EVERETT DIRKSEN (Republican, Illinois): To retreat and get out would be deemed a confession that we are a paper tiger. To forsake our pledges would shatter confidence in us and further diminish our prestige.

INSKEEP: So he's in favor of continuing the war, the Democrats were in favor of continuing the war. But by 1972 that has changed. Here is an Idaho Democrat, Frank Church, in rebuttal to then President Richard Nixon, a Republican.

Former Senator FRANK CHURCH (Democrat, Idaho): President Nixon tells us that we can't give up the war until we ensure the future of South Vietnam. Common sense tells us that there's no way to ensure Vietnam's future. One day we will have to leave, and when we do the future of Vietnam will revert to the people who live there, the Vietnamese themselves in whose hands it should've been left from the beginning.

INSKEEP: Timothy Naftali, any parallels with today?

Mr. NAFTALI: Well, between Everett Dirksen's stentorian and, may I say, 19th century voice, you go from a period when the war was recently popular. Public opinion doesn't start dramatically changing until '68. So by 1972, the Vietnam War is very unpopular. The loyal opposition can attack the war without seeming out of step. That's the exact position that Senator Webb finds himself in today.

What'll be most interesting about his rebuttal is the extent to which the Democratic Party is ready to go on record against the surge - or the escalation - that President Bush has laid out as the way forward.

INSKEEP: Let's talk a little bit about changing presentation. You mentioned there was a senator there in what you called a 19th century style of delivery. Just a few years later we heard applause because there was an audience and apparently questions even phoned in to the rebuttal speaker, Senator Church.

Mr. NAFTALI: You can see in a sense in the evolution of these responses how people's taste change and how political rhetoric changes. Reagan is the big dividing line. He forces the Democrats to get much better at these responses, much folksier.

INSKEEP: In what way?

Mr. NAFTALI: In 1985, they start what we would later call a town meeting. And it's led by a very young fresh face on the scene, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.

Former President BILL CLINTON: We have just heard the president of the United States address our nation. And by the way, Mr. President, happy birthday tonight.

INSKEEP: We should remember that just a year before, President Reagan had administered what today we might call a thumping to the Democrats in that election.

Former Pres. CLINTON: Perhaps we have lagged behind in recent years but we're on the move now. Our critics have said we are for too much government while they want the government off our backs. Well, we want the government off our backs too, but we need it by our sides.

Mr. NAFTALI: Here you have the Democratic Party basically having a therapy session. You don't hear this very often but the Democratic Party was deeply divided and unsure of its future in 1985. It would, of course, change in a couple of years thanks to Iran-Contra, which would give the Democrats something to talk about in their responses to Ronald Reagan.

INSKEEP: And let's listen to a little bit of that. Just a couple of years later, Robert Byrd, senator of West Virginia, delivers the Democratic response just as President Reagan is in the midst of that Iran-Contra scandal.

Senator ROBERT BYRD (Democrat, West Virginia): The sale of arms to Iran in direct contradiction to our stated foreign policy raises real questions about trust. But it also raises real doubts about competence.

INSKEEP: Timothy Naftali, you have an occasion where opposition parties perceive a president as weak. How far are they willing to go in that setting?

Mr. NAFTALI: They're willing to go as far as to say that the president has betrayed your trust. When the president is deeply mired in a scandal, the response can be very tough. Generally speaking, though, what you hear is that the president is out of touch with American values. That is generally the line that the opposition is going to take.

INSKEEP: May I play a bit of tape from 1993. Bill Clinton has just become president of the United States. He's delivered a major speech, and the House Republican leader, Bob Michel, even though the man has just become president, feels it is important to go after him quite strongly.

Former Representative BOB MICHEL (Republican, Illinois): And after listening to the president tonight, I wonder if you really know what the president's long-range economic strategy is. I don't. The Clinton spin doctors have even given us a new political vocabulary, if you will - investment now means big government spending your tax dollars. Patriotism now means agreeing with the Clinton program. The powerful evocative word, sacrifice, has been reduced to the level of a bumper sticker slogan.

Mr. NAFTALI: What you have in 1993 - first of all, Clinton doesn't give a State of the Union address, he gives an economic statement. And the Republican Party is furious that George H.W. Bush wasn't reelected, and they know he wasn't reelected because he broke his no-new-taxes pledge. What you have here is a competition for Perot voters. People might remember that, you know, Ross Perot gets about 19 percent of the vote.

INSKEEP: So what you can see from this is that you had a president who won a three-way race, he didn't get a majority of the vote and it's almost as if the campaign is still going on.

Mr. NAFTALI: It's the permanent campaign, and in fact, I would say that the entire Clinton era is categorized by a permanent campaign by the Republican Party.

INSKEEP: Do any of these rebuttal speeches end up in books of great political speeches?

Mr. NAFTALI: No. These speeches are largely for the party itself. But if you do have the time to watch, I think they're an excellent telltale of where the opposition is going and how much room to criticize the opposition feels it has. In 2007, I would say that the loyal opposition feels it has a lot of room to criticize the incumbent president.

INSKEEP: Timothy Naftali, good to talk with you again.

Mr. NAFTALI: Thanks a lot, Steve. My pleasure.

INSKEEP: He's a political historian and incoming director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library.

MONTAGNE: And we spoke to Timothy Naftali as part of our series, Crossing the Divide. We'll cross it again tomorrow meeting voters who say they don't belong to either major party. And at NPR.org you can get results from a new poll on political polarization in America. There you can also submit your stories about conflict, cooperation and compromise.

INSKEEP: Before the rebuttal speech begins, of course, President Bush will deliver his speech, and here is some of what the president is expected to propose.

MONTAGNE: Energy analysts tell NPR to look for a plan to expand the use of ethanol. That's a follow-up to last year when the president said the nation was, quote, addicted to oil.

INSKEEP: The president will also make a proposal on health insurance. He wants to change the tax code. People with so-called gold-plated health coverage would pay more in taxes, and that would free up money to give a break to people who need basic coverage.

MONTAGNE: The president is also expected to push Congress to renew his education law: No Child Left Behind.

INSKEEP: And the president has already announced his approach to the war in Iraq. Tonight he is expected to emphasize, that in his view, the war is part of the broader, and more popular, war on terror.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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