Dennis Eckart wasn't thinking of fundamentally changing the way members of Congress behave at State of the Union addresses when he picked up a document one night in 1982 that had been discarded by a Republican colleague. Then a freshman Democratic congressman from Ohio, Eckart was just curious. But what he found that night set in motion a series of events that now, three decades later, has the United States chief justice decrying the annual speech as a "pep rally" and has many in Congress struggling to present a less partisan face to a public generally scornful of the status quo.
"I remember it vividly," said Eckart, now a Cleveland lawyer. Like other Democrats, he had marveled at President Reagan's oratorical skills and had been a little puzzled at how many times his Republican colleagues sprang to their feet to wildly applaud parts of Reagan's address.
"It was a bit disconcerting to us. It just seemed a little over the top," said Eckart, who, although just a freshman, was so highly regarded he had been named a party whip. "I walked over to the Republican side, and I leaned over and picked up off the floor a copy of the remarks that Republicans had."
To his amazement, he saw that the copy differed in one important area from the texts that had been given at the last minute to the Democratic leadership. The copies given to all the Republicans had "(APPLAUSE)" written throughout as cues to help Reagan break all records for ovations.