Who pays for presidential guests at State of the Union?

AUSTIN, Texas -- The deal with President Donald Trump is that by any given Friday, you can't remember what the previous Tuesday's dust-up-du-jour was.

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Ken Herman
, Cox Newspapers

AUSTIN, Texas -- The deal with President Donald Trump is that by any given Friday, you can't remember what the previous Tuesday's dust-up-du-jour was.

Who remembers much about his Jan. 30 State of the Union speech? And that's despite Trump keeping it in the news by alleging Democrats who didn't applaud his every word committed punishable-by-death treason by America-hating.

Me? I'm circling back to the speech at the request of Austin American-Statesman reader Mary Ann Robalino, who, in a recent letter to the editor, had some questions about it.

"My question for Ken Herman is this," she wrote. "All of Trump's guests in the gallery during the State of the Union Address had to be flown in, driven around, put up in hotels, and had meals provided for them. Do these expenses fall on the taxpayers, or did Trump pay these expenses himself? I believe that he shamelessly used these folks as props to add credence to his so-called policies."

Presidents often use SOTU balcony guests to make and score political points. Not always, but enough that it's not something Trump invented. As with everything, he did seem at times to take it to new levels. It's just what he does.

The guests seated with first lady Melania Trump (good to see her out and about again) included folks there so Trump could trumpet his greatness. It's just what he does. The guests included folks benefiting from the tax reform package and parents of two girls murdered by MS-13 members. The latter were on hand to make a border-security point.

Other guests simply were heroes -- hurricane relief, firefighting, military -- deeply worthy of presidential recognition.

So, reader Robalino wants to know, who pays for these ordinary folks to travel to D.C. for this extraordinary occasion? I don't know.

I asked the White House but am awaiting a reply without holding my breath. Frankly, I'm OK with this going on the taxpayers' tab as long as there's a non-political reason to recognize and honor the guests.

But here's an interesting tidbit, gleaned from a 2013 Washington Post story about the funeral of businessman and philanthropist Joe Allbritton. In a eulogy, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, according to the Post, "divulged how the self-made millionaire (Allbritton) quietly picked up the transportation and lodging costs of Americans who otherwise couldn't afford to accept invitations to sit in the balcony during presidential State of the Union addresses."

So there's an indication that, at least at one time, government money didn't cover SOTU guests' expenses.

The balcony guest tradition started in 1982 when President Ronald Reagan invited Lenny Skutnick, a government worker who had jumped into the frigid Potomac River to save a woman after an Air Florida plane crash.

Barack Obama didn't acknowledge any guests in his final SOTU in January 2016. A year earlier, he had acknowledged several guests, including a Minneapolis couple who had worked through hard times and, Obama said, represented "the millions who have worked hard and scrimped, and sacrificed and retooled. You are the reason that I ran for this office."

He also recognized astronaut Scott Kelly, who was two months from a year-long space mission. The president's point was about a re-energized space program. "So good luck, captain," he said to Kelly. "Make sure to Instagram it. We're proud of you."

And Obama recognized Alan Gross, a federal government contractor who'd been imprisoned in Cuba for bringing phones and computers into that country and had been released in December 2014 as part of the thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations.

To be sure, Obama used each of those guests to prove, or at least buttress, a point about his leadership. But, as with all things, he was more graceful about it than Trump was.

Reader Robalino had a second question about SOTU speeches: "With which presidency did the State of the Union Address become theater? There was a time when the president addressed the American people from the Oval Office. No clapping or distractions or theatrics. Will we see the dignified speech making ever again?"

Yes, presidents sometimes speak to us from the quiet dignity of the Oval Office. It's a great tradition, appropriate at times. But no, a president never has given a State of the Union address from the Oval Office.

The State of the Union derives from a constitutional provision that says the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."

That, by definition, makes it a political speech. Nothing wrong with that. And a political speech means differing reactions from politicians with differing views. Nothing wrong with that -- though shouting, "You lie!" in reaction does seem a bit over the top.

George Washington and John Adams reported on the union's state in live addresses to Congress. But Thomas Jefferson did it in writing, as did his successors until Woodrow Wilson spoke to a joint congressional session in 1913. Wilson, due to health, didn't address Congress in 1919 and 1920. Calvin Coolidge did one in person (1923) but the rest in writing. All four of Herbert Hoover's were in writing.

The last president to do a State of the Union in writing was Jimmy Carter, who, in 1981 did so in lieu of a speech prior to leaving office after being defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Oval Office addresses are a different beast, most often for a specific topic as opposed to a long-winded legislative shopping list. Trump's done two Oval Office speeches, one in June 2017 after the shootings at the congressional baseball practice and one in December 2017 about moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Obama did 11 Oval Office speeches on topics including immigration reform, relations with Cuba, war developments and his farewell address. (If it makes you feel better, this is where you can insert your joke about looking forward to Trump's farewell address.)

One more thing about money and the State of the Union address. This recent one was the first in which you could pay to get your name onscreen during the speech. Trump supporters who gave $35 or more had their names displayed during his campaign website's livestream of the event.

"This is a movement," said the Trump campaign pitch for donations. "It's not about just one of us. It's about ALL of us."

Yes, it is about ALL of us. And it is a movement -- towards what remains to be seen.

Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. Email: kherman(at)statesman.com.

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