WASHINGTON – Given anywhere else, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech Tuesday wouldn’t have caused such a ruckus.
But a foreign leader denouncing President Barack Obama’s policy from within the grand hall of American democracy upended nearly two centuries of tradition.
A joint meeting of Congress, gathering senators and representatives together in the House chamber, is a ceremony typically bestowed on one or two friendly foreign leaders per year. It looks a lot like a presidential State of the Union address. The speaker embodies his or her nation; the audience of lawmakers represents all Americans.
Unity and shared purpose are the standard themes. Standing ovations are a given.
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“It establishes there is a strong bond between the two nations,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. “In that context, a speech that provokes controversy at home or abroad is problematic.”
So leaders speaking against the backdrop of the chamber’s 8-foot-tall American flag tend to gloss over national differences and steer clear of internal politics.
Some of these speeches are powerful – think Winston Churchill rallying Americans for a long, hard war or Nelson Mandela calling them to lead all humanity toward democracy and peace.
Others, frankly, are so bland they’re dull. It’s not unusual for staffers and student pages to be sent in to fill the seats of lawmakers who didn’t bother showing up.
Netanyahu’s appearance, in contrast, was so contentious that more than four dozen Democratic lawmakers announced they were staying away in protest, despite the nation’s close ties to Israel.
Still, demand for seats in the chamber and visitors’ gallery was fierce, and Netanyahu was welcomed with enthusiastic ovations and cheers, especially from Republicans.
Netanyahu said he was morally obliged to speak out in hopes of stopping what he called the “bad deal” the U.S. is in the midst of negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program.
Before the address, the White House complained that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had violated protocol by inviting Netanyahu without first consulting the White House. Boehner responded that Americans needed to hear Netanyahu’s fears that Iran will get nuclear weapons.
History offers scant precedent for Netanyahu’s contentious speech. But joint meetings of Congress have produced other dramatic scenes:
The tradition of inviting foreign dignitaries dates to the Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution, who gave separate speeches to the House and Senate in 1824.
It took another 50 years for the two bodies to come together to hear a foreigner – King Kalakaua, of what was then the Kingdom of Hawaii.
Since World War II, these joint meetings – similar to the “joint sessions” that hear U.S. presidents – have become the favored venue for foreign leaders and dignitaries. Usually their appearances get more notice back home than among Americans, which made Netanyahu’s address before a cheering Congress just two weeks before he’s up for re-election in Israel even more controversial.
Israel is one of a few allies that dominate the rostrum. With Netanyahu’s return, it ties Britain and France at eight speeches apiece. In all, 110 foreigners and a handful of Americans – mostly early-Space Age astronauts – have addressed joint meetings.
As Australian prime minister in 2011, Julia Gillard nailed the mutual-admiration genre. Her voice breaking, Gillard recalled being a small girl amazed that Americans had landed on the moon.
“On that great day I believed Americans could do anything,” she said. “I believe that still.”
The closest comparison to Netanyahu’s latest speech to Congress may be Netanyahu’s last speech to Congress.
The Israeli prime minister’s 2011 visit went through diplomatic channels and included a stop at the White House. But Netanyahu’s appearance with Obama turned frosty. He sternly rejected Obama’s suggestion that peace negotiations with the Palestinians should start from Israel’s boundaries before it seized territory in 1967.
In his speech to Congress, Netanyahu repeated his rejection of “indefensible boundaries,” prompting scathing reactions from Palestinian leaders.
Inside the House chamber, however, Netanyahu was embraced enthusiastically by Republicans and Democrats alike.
The speaker who famously denounced a president’s war policy was an American.
In 1951, President Harry S. Truman stunned the world by firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur as commander of U.S.-led forces in the Korean War. MacArthur had publicly challenged Truman’s decision to limit the conflict and avoid all-out war with bordering China.
Acclaimed for his World War II exploits in the Pacific, MacArthur was welcomed home as a hero. Congressional Republicans invited him to speak and the Democrats controlling Congress agreed. Truman didn’t object, calling it a fitting honor.
MacArthur was unbowed.
“In war there can be no substitute for victory,” he declared, accusing Truman of faltering against the communist Chinese. The public soon rejected MacArthur’s ideas.
But the words he used to close a 52-year military career live on.
He quoted a ballad from his days at West Point:
“Old soldiers never die,” MacArthur said. “They just fade away.”
A foreigner invited to brace up the president still can stir controversy in Washington and at home.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke in defense of the Iraq War in July 2003, months after the invasion, when the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the realization that fighting would not end quickly was souring public opinion in the U.S. and further inflaming war opposition in Britain.
Congressional Democrats were starting to question President George W. Bush’s rationale for going to war. Still, members from both parties cheered Blair, who assured them, “We will be with you in this fight for liberty.”
Nearly two decades earlier, another British leader, Margaret Thatcher, gave a rousing endorsement of President Ronald Reagan’s Cold War strategy. She called her speech to Congress “one of the most moving occasions of my life.”
Netanyahu is only the second leader to address a joint meeting three times.
The other – British Prime Minister Churchill – gave one of the Capitol’s most dramatic speeches in 1941.
Churchill rushed across the Atlantic to make war plans with President Franklin Roosevelt when the United States entered World War II.
Speaking under the newsreel cameras’ bright lights, his voice carried live to anxious Americans by radio, Churchill voiced outrage at Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor but openly rejoiced that the United States “has drawn the sword of freedom,” bringing hope to its battered European allies.
A few speakers bring Congress a transcendent vision. Mandela did it twice.
In 1990, newly freed from 27 years in prison, the anti-apartheid leader rallied Americans to help black South Africans end segregation and achieve democracy.
“Let us keep our arms locked together so that we form a solid phalanx against racism,” he implored.
In 1994, Mandela returned as South Africa’s first black president.
He urged Americans to look beyond their national borders and take the lead in creating a world of democracy, peace and prosperity.
“Once you set out on this road,” Mandela said, “no one will need to be encouraged to follow.”
A coming attraction: Pope Francis.
Boehner invited him to become the first leader of the world’s Roman Catholics to address Congress, on Sept. 24.
They may not agree with all the pope has to say, but Obama and Republican and Democratic lawmakers are heralding it as a landmark occasion.