Cue the Republicans, Newt!

January 29, 1995

"Perhaps not as conservative as might have been expected from a Republican president addressing a Republican Congress, the message nevertheless was much farther to the right than would have been anticipated if the Democrats had been returned to power."

The Sun, Page 1, Jan. 7, 1947.

Bill Clinton, meet Harry Truman. Forty-seven years ago, President Truman delivered the first Democratic State of the Union speech to a Republican Congress in over a quarter-century. He was, as President Clinton was last Tuesday, conciliatory and dropped several pet programs from the agenda he had pushed the previous two years, to a Democratic Congress.

Then as now, the congressional response to his speech was mostly partisan. Unlike last week, the applause in 1947 did not seem to those who reported on it then or later to be orchestrated. We believe the reaction of last Tuesday was unprecedented. It often appeared that the two men seated behind the president were performing as competing directors.

Cue the Democrats, Al! Loud applause and cheers on the left side of the aisle. Cue the Republicans, Newt! Loud applause and cheers on the right side of the aisle. The speaker of the House, we thought, was particularly Cecil B. DeMille-ish. Of course, he had more -- and more spirited -- extras than the vice president.

Even if the Democrats had wanted to play such a game in 1947, they could not have. Both the men seated behind President Truman when he delivered his State of the Union speech were Republicans. There was no vice president. (Truman ascended to the presidency from the vice presidency in 1945, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt died.) Under those circumstances, the president pro tem of the Senate joined the speaker of the House as presiding officers of Congress when a president addressed it. In 1947, both men were Republicans.

President Truman and the Republican Congress in 1947 started off with the appearance of cooperation. The president praised it (and it was a pretty distinguished body, including three future presidents). But before long, it had become in his speeches "the good-for-nothing, do-nothing 80th Congress" and "the worst Congress in history." He ran for re-election on that theme.

Bill Clinton, the first Democratic president since then to face a Republican Congress, probably likes to look back to Truman's performance -- and maybe forward to a revival. Given up for politically dead, Truman was re-elected in 1948.

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