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At State of the Union, an Attempt at Civility

Some will sit with their opposites; will it change anything?

The assemblage at this year's State of the Union address will have a very different look.

At least 30 members of the Senate and dozens of House members have agreed to sit with a member of the opposite party for the address. It will be a distinctly different look and feel inside the cavernous House of Representatives chamber.

In recent years, the political theater of the State of the Union address has approached the absurd with the sight of Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other, one party leaping in applause and cheers at parts of the president's speech while the other side sat mute. Occasionally, the two sides would rise together, if the president praised combat troops (or apple pie, or Mom). At the other extreme was last year's shout-out "You lie" from Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), angry at President Obama. Chief Justice John Roberts likened the show to a political "pep rally" and said he wasn't sure if he would continue attending.

Unity message gains urgency

The spectacle contributed to the plunging public rating of Congress, especially among older Americans, according to recent polls. It also prompted calls for greater civility and cooperation. Several groups of former lawmakers and civilians had adopted that message. Washington lawyer and former Army Assistant Secretary Joe Reeder wrote an op-ed article for the AARP Bulletin in May urging lawmakers to sit in alphabetical order, rather than by party.

The shooting in Tucson of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) gave the message greater urgency, starting with an open letter from Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.). "Instead of being seen united as a country, the choreographed standing and clapping of one side of the room — while the other side sits — is unbecoming of a serious institution. And the message that it sends is that even on a night when the president is addressing the entire nation, we in Congress cannot sit as one, but must be divided as two," he wrote.

'Nothing will change'

But while Lewis L. Gould, professor emeritus of history at the University of Texas, Austin, applauded any small gestures toward civility in the wake of Tucson, he suggested that all the hoopla over the seating arrangement — including television cameras seeking reaction shots from seatmates — will take away from the substance of the speech.

"In short, spectacle has supplanted ideas and nothing will change," he said in an e-mail response to questions. "An agreement to withhold applause until the president had finished speaking and listen to what the chief executive says would be a salutary step, but it is unlikely that anyone now would sit still for 50 minutes or an hour without erupting pro or con."

New York Democrat Chuck Schumer, a liberal fighter for the Democrats, has agreed to buddy up with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), an ultraconservative. Schumer's New York partner, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, also a Democrat, plans to sit with Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) during the speech.

Partisan seating has dominated State of the Union speeches for 98 years, since 1913, when Woodrow Wilson began the modern tradition of personally going up to Capitol Hill to deliver the remarks. Prior to that time, the state of the union reports had been sent as written messages, except for the first one — George Washington's delivery to a joint session of Congress in New York on Jan. 8, 1790. Thomas Jefferson began the written tradition after that.

AARP has long urged greater cooperation, including its Divided We Fail campaign in 2009.

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton (R-Ind.), in a radio interview with AARP in 2006, called for members of Congress to put loyalty to the Constitution first, not loyalty to party. "If you are a member of Congress, you take an oath of office to support and defend the Constitution, not to support and defend the president, not even your constituency or your largest campaign contributor," said Hamilton, long a crusader for congressional comity. He also called for a "loyalty and willingness to make the institution work."

Reeder, in his op-edin the AARP Bulletin, cited the old saw attributed to Rufus E. Miles Jr., a federal official under presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson: "Where you stand depends on where you sit." Reeder called for members to sit alphabetically, primary-school style, and periodically rotate the seating.

"The sobering effect of assigned seating — a tool well used by savvy schoolmasters throughout the world — would render the embarrassing Capitol Hill circus of cheering, jeering, sulking and sidebar-whispering a relic of the past," Reeder wrote.

Maybe for one night.

Elaine S. Povich is a veteran Washington-based congressional correspondent.

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