When Debuts Flop: Katie Britt Is the Latest in a Long Line of Botched Opening Acts

Senator Katie Britt, Republican of Alabama, had not finished delivering her breathless, overly dramatized and fact-challenged response to President Biden’s State of the Union address last week when the ridicule and criticism began pouring in from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Her delivery from an oddly empty kitchen was stilted and awkwardly strident. She spoke in apocalyptic terms. And, as a freelance journalist soon discovered, she used a misleading account of sex trafficking to criticize border policies, falsely implying that it had taken place in the United States under Mr. Biden. In fact, it happened many years ago in Mexico during the administration of President George W. Bush.

“We wouldn’t be OK with this happening in a third world country,” Ms. Britt said from her kitchen table in Montgomery, Ala. “This is the United States of America.”

Now, the senator’s nationally televised speech — given before she had even delivered her first speech on the Senate floor — is etched in the public consciousness as a defining moment of her early days on the national political stage. It will no doubt shadow her budding Senate career as the single thing most Americans know about her.

But Ms. Britt is not the first female freshman Republican senator from the South who, eager to make a splash right out of the gate, staged a high-profile introductory event that went awry, putting an indelible stamp on her career.

Her story recalls that of Senator Paula Hawkins of Florida, a member of the 1980 class that swept Republicans into the Senate majority on Ronald Reagan’s coattails. Trying to quickly establish her conservative bona fides, Ms. Hawkins arranged a lunch in 1981 to promote her first big legislative initiative: a criminal crackdown on food stamp fraud.

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