In the past, did congressmen show their disdain for speakers by reading?

During last night’s broadcast of the State of the Union speech, I saw, for a brief moment, some senator or representative with his face down, mobile device in his lap, screen glowing, and apparently reading or sending some sort of message. As rude as that seems to me, maybe it’s just the technological version of something others have done in the past. In former times, pre-wireless communications, would a congressman be reading a book or newspaper during such a speech?

Back in 2004, Japan’s then-Prime Minister Koizumi scolded a bunch of junior members of Parliament for reading manga while they were in session. Granted, this was fairly recently, but.

Well, some senators didn’t even wait for the speech to begin to should their disdain for the man.

Ok, but what about in the august body here we call congress?

I remember when there was some really big deal news thing (the verdict of Clinton’s impeachment trial?) when these guys behind the speaker would surely know they were being filmed, one of them was opening a box that looked like a gift and pulling out what seemed to be a nose hair trimmer. He showed it to his neighbor.

Did he demonstrate it? Oh god, please tell me he demonstrated it.

I’ll bet it was a text. Says"He lies".

I noticed that bit too. It didn’t seem like a one-off text - most of the people around him were standing up applauding, while he was still seated deeply engrossed in reading his Blackberry. It struck me, like it obviously has for the OP, that this was probably a deliberate thing he was doing the whole way through the speech: “I’ve got more important things to get on with than listening to this jack-ass” type of thing.

I don’t know whether it’s happened before - I doubt searches for “state of the union newspaper” would yield anything but newspaper coverage of SOTU addresses - but I wouldn’t be surprised.

I think its less a modern version of showing disdain as the way that modern technology has made everyone, including congresspersons, ruder. The person you saw could just as easily have been an Obama supporter who wanted to check a figure or share something with a friend during the speech. Or, if he really was reading for a while, following along on CNN’s coverage or something. Way too many people, in way too many situations, think that it’s perfectly O.K. to check their mobile device because they couldn’t possibly be untethered for long enough to actually listen. In an audience of 535 members of Congress, plus the Supreme Court, assorted Cabinet members, etc., I would be astonished if there wasn’t a BlackBerry-using jerk who didn’t see the harm.

I own a BlackBerry and I’m certainly not saying that everyone who uses them is a jerk, just that modern technology seems to have lessened people’s attention to the person who is standing right in front of them talking to them, even if that person happens to be the (BlackBerry-owning) President of the United States.

When I was in HS (graduated in 1954) my American history teacher said that hardly anyone actually listened to speeches. Mostly they didn’t go (committee meetings, meeting constituents or the like) and the ones who were actually present essentially knew what was coming and openly read newspapers, books, reports, etc. It wasn’t always a matter of showing disdain; there are only so many hours in a day and debate hardly ever changes people’s minds. It is one-on-one lobbying that works, if anything does.

I honestly want to say he did, by gesture. I remember it because I saw it live on the news and laughed, and then Letterman (?) pointed it out again and it was even funnier.

For what it’s worth, electronic devices are against the rules of the House of Representatives:

Well, good luck with enforcement during a SOTU speech when the chamber is packed.

That’s exactly right; during ordinary Congressional debate it would be impossible to show disdain by not listening because nobody listens and nobody is expected to listen.

The only time I can imagine such a ploy is during a Presidential address, and then only since the Wilson administration when Presidents began addressing Congress in person. But, I’ve never heard of such a thing happening. There’s a pretty strong tradition in Congress against showing active disrespect for the Speaker, which is why “you lie” was newsworthy. It isn’t like a Commonwealth Parliament where speakers are routinely heckled and harassed.

I don’t think there’s any way he could have been an Obama supporter. Maybe some congressmen will have subtly had a quick check of their phones during the speech, but when you’re at the State of the Union address, with national network cameras roaming around the crowd and 30 million Americans watching, and Obama has just said something that has everyone around you giving him a standing ovation, there’s no way any Obama-supporting congressman could be dense enough to type away at length on a Blackberry and ‘accidentally’ miss the lengthy ovation…

Anecdoterelated, but only tangentially, to the OP:

We know precisely what Harry Truman was doing at the moment he became President: writing a lettr to his mother while ostensibly presiding, as V.P. and hence President of the Senate, over a sparsely attended session during which a Senator was speaking at length on water rights, “a subject,” Truman wrote acerbically to his mother, “about which he knows absolutely nothing.”

(Actually the senator was not completely ignorant on the subject, as was explained later, but was out of his depth in the intricacies the bill he was speaking on dealt with, but he felt he needed to make the speech because of costituents in the Colorado River Valley for which this was a Big Issue.)