What Could Go Wrong? Bloopers from Past State of the Union Addresses

With the whole country watching, it's easy for politicians to slip up

ByABC News
February 8, 2013, 7:04 PM

Feb. 11, 2013 -- intro: It's that magical night that comes just once a year. No, it's not officially a holiday, but the laughable moments from the State of the Union address can bring a little cheer to all - or at least to those who aren't the butt of the joke.

Each year with all the eyes of the country on them, politicians and the people who cover them make mistakes that are good for a laugh. Most times these bloopers don't live on very long in society's collective memory, so ahead of tomorrow's State of the Union, we thought we would revisit some of the best bad behavior of the past.

From sleepy senators to Twitter trouble, read on and have a laugh now so you're not caught giggling with the cameras on on Tuesday night.

quicklist: 1category: Jan. 25, 2011title: Sleeping Woman Underscores Obama's Point?text: During President Obama's second State of the Union address, he introduced an initiative called "Race to the Top," which encouraged schools to develop innovative programs by allowing them to compete for funding.

Before announcing the new project, the president described how he hoped American children could benefit from it.

"We need to teach them that success is not a function of fame or P.R., but of hard work and discipline," President Obama said.

The line came right after an applause-drawing moment, so it fell on a quiet crowd. But worse than that, as Obama said the words "hard work and discipline," a woman seen on camera, behind then-Rep. Anthony Weiner and Rep. Peter King, appeared to slump to the side, asleep.

Was this woman truly snoozing, only a third of the way through the president's address? Was her head down so she could follow along on a copy of his speech? Or was she merely attempting a theatrical representation to better mark the point of what children need to learn today?

Whatever the case, it was a funny moment for the folks at home.


quicklist: 2category: Jan. 27, 2010title: Biden Misses the Beattext: State of the Union addresses are an important part of the American democracy, but they also tend to be quite long. President Clinton was notorious for his prolific parlance.

As an audience member, after a while, it's easy to get lost. For most of the congressional representatives and other VIPs on site for the president's address, that isn't too difficult a problem. Given copies of remarks and natural pauses in the president's speech, there are a good number of clues for when to applaud and when to stay silent.

But for Vice President Joe Biden, those clues weren't enough in 2010. Caught on camera, the VP raises his hands to applaud, but as Obama goes on, Biden drops his hands in his lap.

The gesture says, "I meant to do that." The facial expression shows Biden less at ease.

Watch for yourself on YouTube.


quicklist: 3category: Jan. 27, 2010title: Justice Alito: Not Truetext: The 2010 State of the Union came shortly arfter the Supreme Court ruled on the famed Citizens United campaign finance case.

During his speech that night, President Obama expressed his displeasure with the Court's ruling.

"Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections," Obama told the nation.

In what was not so much a blooper as an intentional detraction from the president, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito could be seen on camera mouthing the words "Not true."

Politifact sided with Justice Alito on this one; they ruled Obama's appraisal of the decision barely true.


quicklist: 4category: Jan. 27, 2010title: Twittering Over Twittertext: In 2010, Twitter's use of the site bit.ly for shortening URLs was still a relatively new phenomenon, so maybe that explains why one reporter had some trouble tweeting out a link during the State of the Union that year.

When then-Fox News' Major Garrett attempted to send followers a link to his blog about the address, he instead tweeted a link that led to an erotic website.

Garrett blamed the bit.ly service, but the damage had been done. Members of the media had already had a good laugh at the correspondent's expense.

And of course the mistake will live on in the annals of the Internet.


quicklist: 5category: Jan. 31, 2006title: Bush Creates Buzz Over Switchgrasstext: One year into his second term, President Bush took a moment away from worries of wars overseas to talk about the environment and introduced a word that had Americans gabbing - and giggling - for months: switchgrass.

"We'll also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of reducing ethanol, not just from corn but wood chips and stalks, or switchgrass," Bush said during the 2006 speech.

Iowa State University describes the plant as "a perennial grass native to the tallgrass prairies once found across much of the U.S."

The word had folks at home rushing to dust off their agriculture encyclopedias (or so we imagine), but the president continued to use it in speeches to come. He hoped to make fuel made from switchgrass less expensive than gas by 2012.

In early 2007, investors were pouring millions of dollars into that enterprise. As of 2013, the goal is still out of reach and the word seems to have fallen back into obscurity.

But behind the scenes, switchgrass has still played a role in American energy. A 2012 report from the Department of Enegry said more than a dozen research groups were exploring its potential. They hoped to have a commercial switch grass hybrid for sale by 2020.


quicklist: 6category: Feb. 16, 1993title: Clinton: Ad Libber Extraordinairetext: Nine times out of 10 a TelePrompter is a president's best friend, but former president Bill Clinton is the exception to the rule.

Clinton's first address to the nation - much like his 2012 speech at the Democratic National Convention - included many last-minute additions and ad-libs.

Clinton almost doubled the speech, adding an extra 2,800 words, according to the LA Times.

The feat is impressive, but over time it has become confused with another speech Clinton gave largely by memory.

That was less than a year later in an address to Congress on Clinton's health care plan when the wrong version of the speech was loaded into the TelePrompter.

Clinton adviser Paul Begala recalled that moment in an interview with PBS' Frontline:

"The poor guy is up there alone and naked on the most complex public policy issue, a fairly complex bill, and he went the first nine minutes without a note, and nobody could tell. It was phenomenal. Worse than that, the teleprompter screens are whizzing forward and backwards with last year's speech, trying to find it, and finally, they killed it all together and reloaded it. Nine minutes the guy went without a note, and no one could tell. It was a phenomenal--it's part of the Clinton legend."


quicklist: 7category: Jan. 30, 1974title: A Line Nixon Should Have Nixedtext: During Richard Nixon's 1974 address to the nation, one word gave him a bit of trouble.

In describing his new plans for social programs in the U.S., Nixon stumbled, so the words that came out of his mouth were "I urge the Congress to join me in mounting a major new effort to replace the discredited president...present welfare system..."

It was an easy mistake but perhaps a telling one, as just six months later, Nixon announced he would resign as the 37th president of the United States.

"I want you to know that I have no intention whatever of ever walking away from the job that the people elected me to do for the people of the United States," Nixon told the nation during his State of the Union address that year.

The president must have forgotten to knock on wood.