State of the Union Response: A Brief History

How does the political party that doesn't sit in the White House communicate its self-image to the American people? One clue appears annually in a familiar form of political theater: the official rebuttal to the State of the Union address.

Tuesday night, a carefully selected rebutter, newly elected Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, will give the Democratic answer to President Bush's State of the Union address.

As part of NPR's Crossing the Divide Series, political historian Tim Naftali tells Steve Inskeep that rebuttal speeches are an excellent "tell-tale" of how much confidence the "loyal opposition" has in itself, and how popular the sitting president is with the American people.

Naftali reviews some rebuttal speeches during other controversial times, including the Vietnam War. He predicts that given the current low approval ratings for Bush and the Iraq war, Webb's speech will be pointed in its criticism.

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