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The History Of SOTU Responses


Stacey Abrams, who once ran for governor of Georgia, delivered the Democratic response to the State of the Union speech last night.


STACEY ABRAMS: Growing up, my family went back and forth between lower middle class and working class. Yet even when they came home weary and bone-tired, my parents found a way to show us all who we could be.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about the tradition of the official response with commentator Cokie Roberts, who joins us each week to talk about how the government and politics work. Hi, Cokie.


INSKEEP: OK, here's a question from one of our listeners.

CHRISTINA GRIFFITH: Hi, this is Christina Griffith (ph). I live in Philadelphia. When was the first time Congress decided a response to the State of the Union was necessary? And was the choice of who would make that response always a meaningful gesture? Or did it just fall to party leadership?

ROBERTS: Well, the first response, in the way we've come to know it, came in 1966. The year before, Lyndon Johnson had moved the State of the Union from a daytime event into prime time for a bigger audience. And the Republicans realized what a boon it was, and so they demanded some time for a response. The two congressional leaders, Gerald Ford and Everett Dirksen, delivered it. And, yes, it is the leaders who decide, but they've decided all kinds of different approaches over the years.

INSKEEP: Now, we have a question from Robert Lee Rouse Jr. (ph), who asks, don't these speeches kind of have a history of burning the person who gives them?

ROBERTS: (Laughter) Well, the person who gives them often burns him or herself.


ROBERTS: Do you remember in 2013 Marco Rubio grabbing for a bottle of water?

INSKEEP: He remembers - that's for sure.

ROBERTS: He does. In 2009, then Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal sounded so much like Mister Rogers that he was ridiculed endlessly by late-night comedians. My personal favorite was 1985 when the Democrats put on a slick video where they conducted focus groups to answer Ronald Reagan. The voters spoke their minds.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And we said that Reagan's program wouldn't work. And to the extent that individuals are better off, it has worked - at the price obviously of the deficit.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. That's the Democratic response?

ROBERTS: (Laughter) Yeah, that was the Democratic response - not exactly scathing criticisms of the president. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton was the anchorman of that broadcast. And though it was weird, it didn't seem to hurt him.

INSKEEP: Dalsey Brand (ph) writes with the opposite question. Has any of these speeches ever been a big success?

ROBERTS: Well, the whole setup is basically unfair. The president's in the historic hall of the House of Representatives. The responder's usually a guy standing alone in a room in front of a teleprompter. In 1995, the Republicans got away from that in their response to Clinton.


CHRISTINE WHITMAN: I'm Christine Whitman, governor of New Jersey. And I am addressing you tonight from the historic legislative chamber in Trenton - one of the oldest in the nation.

ROBERTS: That one scored on several fronts. It was out of Washington in a stately setting, with people there actually applauding - and Republicans putting forward a woman, which often works for them.

INSKEEP: Now, here's another question.

MATTHEW DURDENY: My name is Matthew Durdeny (ph), and I'm from Boulder, Colo. Historically speaking, have regular citizens paid attention to the response? Or is it mostly for showboating in D.C.?

ROBERTS: Well, Steve, they get millions of viewers and listeners. So people are tuned in in much larger numbers than to a normal political speech. Of late, the polarization in our politics shows up in who watches what. So the last Trump State of the Union, more people watched the response than the speech on the liberal-leaning MSNBC. But for the speech itself, the conservative FOX channel had the highest rating.


ROBERTS: And just a couple of weeks ago, that visually peculiar Pelosi-Schumer response to the wall speech garnered a slightly higher rating than the president himself.

INSKEEP: Wow. Thanks so much, Cokie - really appreciate it.

ROBERTS: Always good to talk to you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And we will have a response to that at another time. Commentator Cokie Roberts - and you can ask Cokie your questions about our politics and government work by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie.