In the days since Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union address, one of the most consistently noted elements of the evening has been the speech’s heavy reliance on the stories of individuals, the so-called “heroes in the balcony” whose courage, kindness, strength, and suffering have long lent pathos to the annual episode. Though the practice is now deeply ingrained in the choreography of presidential address, it’s actually a fairly recent development. In fact, as so much else political theater, it began only with Ronald Reagan. As Corey Robin reminds us, the maneuver’s emergence was tracked by Daniel Rodgers in his Bancroft Prize-winning Age of Fracture, which begins with a revelatory look at the highly structured affair of modern presidential oratory. In the brief Age of Fracture excerpt below, Rodgers points to the ways in which the employment of balcony heroes reinforced Reagan’s subtle insistence on the individual as the fundamental component of a nation founded by and for a people.
Getting himself out of the way was key to Reagan’s gestures. Restoration was his primary rhetorical act. He gave the nation’s freedoms and its future promise back to “the people.” It was their seamless history that he painted in verbal miniatures, their hopes he claimed to enunciate. Reagan performed the part of identification with the people far more effortlessly and with vastly less inner contradiction than did his rival, the populist Carter, despite Carter’s sweaters, suitcases, and Mr. Rogers–derived props of neighborliness. Carter and his advisers, struggling to read the minds and the anguish of the people, worried through a relationship that Reagan simply took for granted. “Just three words,” Reagan told the nation’s children in his State of the Union address of 1987, contained the whole secret of America: “We the people.”
Reagan’s commitment to these lines was unswerving. Kenneth Khachigian, called in to work on the 1987 State of the Union message, heard the “We the people” motif from Reagan himself, and wrote it into the speech with the excitement of adding a new and “perfect Reagan touch.” In fact it had been part of Reagan’s core stock of phrases since at least the mid-1960s. In Reagan’s mind the anecdote paired with the words was always the same. In other countries, governments told the people what to do. In contrast, “Our revolution is the first to say the people are the masters and government is their servant.”
To insist on the concrete reality of “the people” was, for Reagan and conservative Republicans, an essential precondition to the act of wedging the government and the people apart into sharply antagonistic political fields. The division was old in Reagan’s rhetoric. “Already the hour is late,” he had warned in 1964. “Government has laid its hand on health, housing, farming, industry, commerce, education . . .” For the Constitution’s drafters, the phrase “We the People” had been a legitimating device: a means to give moral and political foundation to a stronger national government. In Reagan’s speeches, the same words were refashioned to distance the natural, spontaneous acts of the people from the work of those they elected to be their representatives.
Reagan was not the first of the post-1945 presidents to run on an antigovernment program. “Government cannot solve our problems,” had been Carter’s line in the 1970s; “it can’t set our goals, it cannot define our vision.” Carter’s populist rhetoric, however, had strained toward healing. Alienation underlay these formulas as strongly as antagonism underlay Reagan’s. We “have seen our Government grow far from us. . . almost become like a foreign country, so strange and distant,” Carter lamented in his 1978 State of the Union message. He talked easily of humility, mercy, justice, spirit, trust, wisdom, community, and “common purpose.” “It is time for us to join hands in America,” he urged in his energy crisis address. Reagan’s talk of government and the people, by contrast, pushed toward severance. His goal was to rearrange the verbal system such that government was not the agent, embodiment, or reflection of the people. Rather, government was the people’s antagonist, the limiter of their limitlessness. The twin pillars of his domestic policy—tax cutting and corporate and environmental deregulation—flowed directly from those premises.
But to devolve power to the people required that the people themselves be made visible. They needed words and representation. The terms in which Reagan referred to the people were instinctively expansive and inclusive. He was the last president to preside over the common audience that television network news had made, where a single voice could be imagined to speak to and for the nation. The gray, muffled prose of an Eric Sevareid and the mannered but reassuring avuncularisms of a Walter Cronkite were already under challenge in 1980. The pioneer of argumentative television, where panelists faced off like wrestling team opponents to parry, declaim, interrupt, and shout, Agronsky and Company, had been launched in late 1969. The McLaughlin Group, a favorite of Reagan’s, heated up the formula in 1982, from which it was quickly and widely cloned. Radio, with its smaller niche audience always more argumentative than television, turned up the volume of dispute sharply with the arrival of Howard Stern and, by 1988, Rush Limbaugh. But Reagan still presided over an America in which public speech was not yet systematically polarized, and the notion of the “people” was not yet a mere verbal fig leaf covering the fact of permanent political campaign.
At times, Reagan’s speechwriters slipped into something close to Franklin Roosevelt’s image of the people as a broad occupational phalanx: workers, farmers, and businessmen bound together by bands of economic interdependence. “We the people,” Reagan limned them in 1981: “neighbors and friends, shopkeepers and laborers, farmers and craftsmen.” But Reagan’s word-pictures of the people almost never showed them working together, their energy and talent joined in a common action. As Benjamin Barber, one of the first to pick up this subsurface theme, wrote of “the people singing” sequence in Reagan’s Second Inaugural in 1985: “The speech lauds ‘We the People,’ but its heroes are men alone . . . In the President’s script, Washington leans on no comrades in arms, Lincoln consults no cabinet . . . a single settler is conjured for us—his family wagon and the long train of Conestogas that must surely have accompanied it are kept out of sight (and out of mind).” In Reagan’s very celebrations of the people, the plural noun tended to slip away, to skitter toward the singular.
The impulse to disaggregate and individualize the people took still more prominent symbolic form in the so-called heroes in the balcony segment of his State of the Union messages. Reagan did not inaugurate the practice of calling forward an individual’s special deeds in a major state address. He was the first, however, to take the inherently public occasion of a report on the nation from the chief of one branch of government to the heads of another and dissolve it, toward the end, into a montage of individual faces. Heroes, volunteers, teenagers with dreams, returned prisoners of war were gathered in the halls of Congress, where Reagan, stepping out of the camera’s eye once more, would introduce them one by one. In 1963, John Kennedy had read the names of three American soldiers killed in Cuba, South Korea, and Vietnam. But here they now were in the flesh, where the applause, the acts of individual accomplishment, and the guest-program tableau all redounded to the administration’s acclaim. The first three heroes in the balconies appeared in Reagan’s State of the Union address in 1982; five more appeared in 1984, two in 1985, four in 1986.
Reagan was fond of saying that his political opponents saw people only as members of groups; his party, to the contrary, saw the people of America as individuals. In fact, no set of Americans was ever chosen with a keener grasp of interest group politics than were Reagan’s heroes in the balconies. A charitable black woman reassured Reagan’s audience that the president had not forgotten the poor; a Hispanic medic drew sympathy for the Grenada invasion; a returned prisoner of war appealed to the patriotic electorate; a teenager whose experiment had been lost in the Challenger explosion lobbied silently for the high frontier of space; the two business figures on the list, a black female advertising executive and a Cuban refugee entrepreneur, spoke to the aspiration of minority business owners.
But the collective calculations of politics brooked no mention. Introduced by the presidential program host, the constituent atoms of the people stood up, for their moment in the camera’s eye, one by one. Reagan asked viewers, not to imitate them or to rise to the challenge they set, but only to applaud them, to believe that their acts were possible. “We the people,” as a collective entity, tacitly disaggregated under the touch.