Bono joins rich tradition of SOTU celebrity guests
Bono is the latest celebrity to add some star-studded “Elevation” to the State of the Union — presidents have a long history of tapping high-profile names to serve as guests at their addresses before a joint session of Congress.
The White House announced Tuesday that the U2 frontman and longtime HIV/AIDS activist would join first lady Jill Biden’s viewing box for President Biden’s address. Bono, along with other guests including military veterans, first responders, the parents of Tyre Nichols and cancer survivors, “were invited by the White House because they personify issues or themes to be addressed by the President in his speech, or they embody the Biden-Harris Administration’s policies at work for the American people,” according to a statement.
A splashy guest can help draw attention to an administration’s initiatives, where a commander in chief stands on hot-button issues or highlight their legislative wins. As the New York Times put it 20 years ago, a State of the Union guest can “put a human face on the president’s ideas.”
It’s a tradition that began more than 40 years ago, when President Reagan invited Lenny Skutnik — a Congressional Budget Office employee who leapt into the Potomac River to save a woman after a plane crash — to attend his 1982 State of the Union address.
Since then, plenty of famous names, alongside everyday Americans, advocates and political leaders, have looked on from a prime seat in the House chamber.
In 1999, Chicago Cubs player Sammy Sosa attended President Clinton’s address, notably becoming the first celebrity guest to be acknowledged during the State of the Union. The 42nd president saluted first lady Hillary Clinton and Sosa for their work in the Dominican Republic following deadly Hurricane Georges.
“In the Dominican Republic, Hillary helped to rededicate a hospital that had been rebuilt by Dominicans and Americans working side by side. With her was someone else who has been very important to the relief efforts,” Clinton said at the time. “You know, sports records are made, and sooner or later they’re broken. But making other people’s lives better and showing our children the true meaning of brotherhood, that lasts forever. So, for far more than baseball, Sammy Sosa, you’re a hero in two countries tonight.”
A year later, baseball great Hank Aaron took his seat in the same section at the State of the Union.
Noted presidential historian David McCullough sat in Laura Bush’s row for President George W. Bush’s 2003 address to Congress.
Mark Harvey, the director of the Masters of Business Administration program at the University of Saint Mary and author of “Celebrity Influence: Politics, Persuasion, and Issue-Based Advocacy,” said his research suggests that “whenever you have a celebrity at an event with a politician, then it’s going to raise the profile of that event. It’s going to get more coverage in the media.”
“So if you sort of intuitively understand that,” Harvey said, “then it’s going to make sense that you’re going to start putting people in places like that.”
Harvey called the Sosa recognition at the State of the Union more than two decades ago “classic celebrity advocacy stuff” by Clinton — “using a celebrity to shine a light on an issue, or more specifically, something meant to make the Clintons look good.”
Sometimes the guests can potentially overshadow the commander in chief’s words themselves.
Former President Trump invited fewer guests than almost any commander in chief, Harvey said, but he gave shoutouts to them more than most of his predecessors.
Trump acknowledged Buzz Aldrin in his 2019 State of the Union address while promoting his administration’s own space program.
“In 2019, we also celebrate 50 years since brave young pilots flew a quarter of a million miles through space to plant the American flag on the face of the moon. Half a century later, we are joined by one of the Apollo 11 astronauts who planted that flag: Buzz Aldrin,” Trump said as he motioned toward the famed astronaut who was there at the Capitol. “This year, American astronauts will go back to space on American rockets.”
In 2020, Trump famously broke with tradition and paused from his State of the Union address to bestow an honor on one of his guests, giving the Medal of Freedom to a teary-eyed Rush Limbaugh, who had recently announced a cancer diagnosis. The conservative radio talk show died in 2021.
The Limbaugh stunt transformed the former “Celebrity Apprentice” host’s remarks.
“All of a sudden, it’s a show … I think there’s a bit of savvy behind that,” Harvey, an associate professor, said.
Bono — a celebrity fixture on Capitol Hill over the years who’s been known for working with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — appears to be a no-brainer of a pick for Biden, according to Harvey.
“If Joe Biden calls out Bono and says, ‘Hey, you know, I brought Bono here because he was a bipartisan negotiator in the Senate and that’s the spirit of the bipartisanship that I want to have — then people are buzzing about bipartisanship again.”
“Just the fact that [Bono’s] sitting there probably isn’t going to do that much,” said Harvey. “But if Biden sort of points him out, then there may be a buzz around this issue.”
The choice of the Irish rocker and co-founder of the ONE Campaign, Harvey said, also can “send a subliminal message of the style of politics that Biden does, because Bono used to be sort of a firebrand in the 1980s and early 1990s, and became sort of a statesman lobbyist who would work on issues that were important to him, but then bring together people from opposing sides in order to make it happen.”
But is there a downside to having a celebrity guest in the audience alongside lawmakers at the State of the Union?
Harvey said any criticism that could portray Biden as cozying up to Hollywood stars for his State of the Union are outweighed by the benefit of the political “showmanship and stagecraft.”
State of the Union addresses, Harvey noted, “can be kind of long and kind of boring.”
“If you break that up and turn it into a mini show — which is what Trump seemed to be super good at — that’s the kind of result that you’re going to get, you’re going to attract a little bit more attention to those particular things.”
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