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Looking Back: Memorable Speeches Delivered From House Chamber

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Had things gone according to the original plan, we would have been analyzing President Trump's State of the Union speech this morning. It was supposed to come last night. It was delayed because of the partial government shutdown. It comes next week. That gives us an opportunity to talk about famous speeches that have taken place over the years inside that chamber of the House of Representatives. Here's Franklin Roosevelt's famous call for a declaration of war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: Yesterday, December 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

INSKEEP: The president speaking to silent members of Congress at that sober moment. The history of speeches in the House is our topic this week for commentator Cokie Roberts. We ask Cokie each week about how politics and the government work.

Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: And here's our first question from the audience.

ANDREA ROBERSON: Hi, Cokie. This is Andrea Roberson from Washington, D.C. Has any U.S. president ever delivered the State of the Union address in an alternate venue outside of the House chamber? If so, what were the circumstances?

ROBERTS: Well, yes. George Washington and John Adams did because the capital was in New York and Philadelphia, respectively, until 1800. Jefferson sent up the speech in writing. And he set the tone for every president after him until Woodrow Wilson in 1913. He decided to deliver it. He set the pattern for most of the presidents following him. But the State of the Union isn't the only speech given before a joint meeting of Congress. There are lots of others, like the one from Roosevelt we just heard.

INSKEEP: And we have tape here of General Douglas MacArthur after he had been fired during the Korean War. He was - he had a lot of public support, was given an opportunity to address Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUGLAS MACARTHUR: I address you with neither rancor nor bitterness in the fading twilight of life with one - but with one purpose in mind - to serve my country.

ROBERTS: Then he finished with the line, old soldiers never die. They just fade away. A half a million people lined the streets as he approached the capital. And the invitation to let him speak was a direct affront to the president. There've been a few of those over history, Steve. Back in 1864, the Radical Republicans brought in, of all things, the first woman to address the Congress...

INSKEEP: Wow.

ROBERTS: ...As a challenge to Abraham Lincoln. Twenty-one-year-old abolitionist Anna Dickinson was, apparently, a spellbinder out on the trail. She successfully campaigned for Republicans. The Democrats complained and tried to pass a resolution, saying, you can't use the hall for such partisan purposes. So that's hardly a new issue.

INSKEEP: Well, I have a question for you, Cokie. What's your favorite speech that's taken place in the House?

ROBERTS: Queen Elizabeth in 1991 - it was so symbolic. And she entered the chamber to such applause. And then she looked so small standing there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

QUEEN ELIZABETH II: Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, distinguished members of Congress, I know what a rare privilege it is to address a joint meeting of your two houses. Thank you for inviting me.

ROBERTS: You know, this was a symbolic moment. There was the historic joint appearance of Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein in 1994 that was such a hopeful moment and was exciting to be in the chamber. But I also just love the hall, Steve. My earliest memory of it was when I had just turned 5 years old, took the oath of office on opening day.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. You took the oath of office at age 5?

ROBERTS: Well, why not? I was there.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: OK, Cokie, thanks so much.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you.

INSKEEP: Commentator Cokie Roberts - you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and the government work by tweeting us with the #AskCokie.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BREATHING EFFECT'S "VISIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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