The throne speech temptation proved irresistible to skilled stage managers in the TV era. It was the Reagan White House, predictably, given its Hollywood roots, that took the speech even further from the printed word and the mere “information of the State of the Union” stipulated by the Constitution. The positioning in the balcony of Lenny Skutnik, an authentic hero of the 1982 Air Florida crash into the 14th Street bridge in Washington, set a trend that reached its ad absurdum status when President Barack Obama mentioned by name four of his more than 20 guests during his 2015 address.
After President Ronald Reagan’s innovation, it dawned on everyone involved that the supporting cast need not be confined to the balconies. Members of Congress got in the act, on both sides of the aisle. Effusive, cued applause, camera-conscious backslapping, stony-faced growls of disapproval and eventually even catcalls from America’s lawmakers have drained what little was left of a serious tutorial about national challenges and priorities. What remains: a tired, farcical theatrical experience more likely to promote cynicism than citizenship in its viewers.