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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Nathan Place and Gustaf Kilander

State of the Union: The seven most bizarre moments over the years

Getty Images

The State of the Union is one of the most choreographed events in American politics. We all know the drill: The president walks down the House chamber, shakes a lot of hands, takes his place in front of the vice president and the speaker of the House, and delivers a carefully prepared speech. Overall, it’s a pretty staid affair.

But some moments have stood out. Every once in a long while (or more often in the Trump years), something happens that is so bizarre, unscripted, or just uncomfortable, that it manages to break through the tedium and become memorable. Below, starting with the most recent, are some of those moments.

2022: Lauren Boebert booed after Afghanistan eruption

Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican, was booed during President Joe Biden’s 2022 State of the Union after she heckled him about the service members killed during the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.

Mr Biden was speaking about veterans struggling with the aftermath of having been in the presence of “toxic burn pits” that may lead to cancer that would “put them in a flag-draped coffin”.

It’s been widely reported that Mr Biden believes that burn pits contributed to his son Beau’s brain cancer, which lead to his death at the age of 46 in 2015 after serving in Iraq.

Ms Boebert stood up in the House chamber, yelling at the president that “you put them in, 13 of them,” in reference to the service members killed in an explosion at the airport in Kabul.

Alongside Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Ms Boebert also attempted to start a “build the wall” chant when Mr Biden spoke about border security and immigration reform.

Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) scream "Build the Wall" as U.S. President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address (Getty Images)

2020: Trump gives Rush Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom

Donald Trump’s State of the Union addresses, much like his presidency, were generally packed with abnormal moments. But his 2020 speech was special. Over and over again, the former Apprentice star introduced special guests and elaborate stunts – at one point orchestrating a surprise reunion between a soldier and his family – that seemed better suited to a reality show than to a staid political ritual.

The peak of this theatre-of-the-absurd approach was when in the middle of the speech, the president spontaneously awarded the nation’s highest civilian honour to right-wing shock jock Rush Limbaugh.

Mr Limbaugh, who died of lung cancer in 2021, was not an obvious choice for the Medal of Freedom. The award was established in 1963 by President John F Kennedy for citizens who had made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavours”.

Radio personality Rush Limbaugh reacts as First Lady Melania Trump gives him the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the State of the Union address (Getty Images)

Mr Limbaugh, on the other hand, was a radio pundit known for coining the term “feminazi,” spreading right-wing conspiracy theories, calling President Obama “more African in his roots than he is American,” saying slavery “had its merits,” mocking Michael J Fox’s tremors, and calling Chelsea Clinton a dog.

And yet there he was, standing in the House of Representatives, receiving thunderous applause from members of Congress as Melania Trump strapped the medal around his neck.

Mr Limbaugh looked as surprised as anyone – but that, most likely, was theatre too. Journalists had been given copies of Mr Trump’s speech ahead of time, which means the radio host almost certainly knew he’d be receiving the award.

Republicans cheered, but the moment was not well received by Democrats – which brings us to the next moment on our list.

Also 2020: Nancy Pelosi tears up Trump’s speech

Perhaps the most shocking moment that has happened at any State of the Union in recent memory is when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, standing behind President Trump, showed what she thought of his speech by tearing it to pieces.

The president had by that point already snubbed Ms Pelosi by refusing to shake her hand at the start of the event, and she’d visibly bristled as he lurched from glowing self-praise to awkward stunts like the awarding of Mr Limbaugh. At the end, Mr Trump handed her a copy of his address. Ms Pelosi tore it up, page by page.

On her way out, a reporter asked the speaker what she’d thought of the speech.

“I tore it up,” she replied simply.

Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi rips a copy of US President Donald Trumps speech after he delivered the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 4, 2020 (AFP via Getty Images)

Later she elaborated further on Twitter.

“The manifesto of mistruths presented in page after page of the address tonight should be a call to action for everyone who expects truth from the President and policies worthy of his office and the American people,” she wrote. “The American people expect and deserve a President to have integrity and respect for the aspirations for their children.”

Conservatives blasted the gesture as petty and inappropriate, but it seemed to have the intended effect. For all the reality show pageantry loaded into Mr Trump’s speech, the thing people talked about the next day was Ms Pelosi ripping it up.

2010: Justice Alito mouths ‘not true’

After the Citizens United case in 2010, President Barack Obama spent a portion of his State of the Union scolding the Supreme Court.

“Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections,” Mr Obama said. “Well, I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and that’s why I’m urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong.”

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito looks on on as U.S. President Barack Obama enters the chamber before speaking to both houses of Congress during his first State of the Union address (Getty Images)

As he said this, the people seated around the Supreme Court justices rose to their feet and applauded. The justices, however, sat stone-faced. Justice Samuel Alito frowned, shook his head, and visibly mouthed the words “not true.”

Some saw the reaction as a breach of decorum. Then again, Mr Obama had seen worse at his last State of the Union.

2009: Joe Wilson shouts ‘you lie!’ at Obama

There are a number of subtle ways to signal one’s disapproval at a joint session of Congress. Shouting “You lie!” is not one of them.

But that’s what Rep Joe Wilson of South Carolina did, as President Obama was defending the health care bill that would ultimately become Obamacare.

It was Mr Obama’s first speech before a joint session but it didn’t qualify as an official state of the union as he had only been in office for a few months when the speech took place on 9 September 2009.

“There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants,” Mr Obama told the joint session of Congress. “This too is false.”

At this point, Republicans in the chamber began audibly groaning. Mr Obama persisted.

“The reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally,” he continued.

“You lie!” Mr Wilson shouted, loudly enough that everyone, including the president, could hear it.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouts "You Lie" as U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress at the U.S. Capitol September 9, 2009 in Washington, DC (Getty Images)

Others in the chamber gasped and booed. House Speaker Pelosi, sitting behind Mr Obama, looked aghast. Vice President Biden gave Mr Wilson an icy stare.

“That’s not true,” Mr Obama said and carried on with his speech.

The outburst was criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike, and Mr Wilson later apologized to the president in person.

“This evening I let my emotions get the best of me when listening to the President’s remarks regarding the coverage of undocumented immigrants in the health care bill,” the congressman said in a statement. “While I disagree with the President’s statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the President for this lack of civility.”

The phrase eventually came back to haunt him. In 2017, an entire town hall full of people shouted “you lie!” at Mr Wilson himself.

1975: Gerald Ford says the State of the Union is ‘not good’

The purpose of the State of the Union, ostensibly, is to inform the American people on how the country is doing – literally, to report the state of the union. Presidents typically use bland superlatives to describe that state, like “strong,” “good,” or “stronger than ever.”

But in 1975, President Gerald Ford used another phrase: “Not good.”

“Today… I must say to you that the state of the union is not good,” Mr Ford told Congress. “Millions of Americans are out of work. Recession and inflation are eroding the money of millions more. Prices are too high, and sales are too slow.”

At the time, the United States was dealing with economic stagflation and the humiliating aftermath of the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon. So Mr Ford’s assessment might have been accurate, but it was a shocking departure from the upbeat tone of most State of the Union speeches.

“Now, I want to speak very bluntly,” the president said. “I’ve got bad news, and I don’t expect much, if any, applause.”

He went on to describe his proposals for solving those problems and said repeatedly that progress was possible. But the most memorable part of the speech was its dour beginning.

A few years later, President Jimmy Carter followed Mr Ford’s blunt approach with his infamous “malaise” speech, but the address was so badly received that some see it as a factor in his reelection defeat. Since then, few presidents have followed this bad-news-first model.

1974: Nixon misspeaks in middle of Watergate scandal

President Richard Nixon took to the podium for his 1974 State of the Union speech with an approval rating of 26 per cent as he was dogged by the Watergate scandal. The House was already looking at impeachment proceedings, and the president’s voice began to tremble.

At one point in his speech, Mr Nixon was planning on saying “we must replace the discredited welfare system,” but instead said, “we must replace the discredited president”.

“I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end. One year of Watergate is enough,” he added during his 30 January speech.

“I want you to know that I have no intention whatever of ever walking away from the job that the people elected me to do for the people of the United States,” he said. He resigned on 9 August of that year.

President Joe Biden is set to give his next State of the Union speech on 7 February.

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