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State of the Union Speeches- They Matter Because Sometimes They Surprise

January 29, 2014 3 comments

SOU

There’s a piece in Politico today (a publication that exhibits all that is wrong and twisted about political coverage with its superficial and cynical repackaging of what is pretended to not be conventional wisdom), that says it’s time to do away with the annual State of the Union speech. I could not disagree more.

I will admit that in the hours leading up to the event last night, I was kind of dreading the tediousness of it all; the 75 interruptions for applause with the one side clapping while the other sits on its hands, the requisite heroes in the audience sitting with the First Lady, the tiresome glad-handing and back-slapping that occurs as the cabinet and the Joint Chiefs and the Supremes and, finally, the President, enter the chamber.

But sometimes the event- the speech and its reactions- surprise you.

There were several moments that made it all worth it to me. In every case, it was when unity unexpectedly filled the chamber. Hope for the future of the Republic!

Unity Incident #1: When the President spoke about America as a place that offers unending possibility and opportunity.

It’s how the daughter of a factory worker is CEO of America’s largest automaker; how the son of a barkeeper is Speaker of the House; how the son of a single mom can be President of the greatest nation on Earth.

The line about Speaker John Boehner was classy and it was greeted in the chamber by a standing ovation by both parties. And when the President delivered the line about himself being the son of a single mom, Boehner, in turn, graciously stood and clapped for him.

Unity Incident #2: Ok, granted it was kind of minor, but when the President riffed on the importance of equal pay for equal work he offered this great line:

It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a “Mad Men” episode.

Boehner’s reaction was a genuine smile. Clearly the Speaker has taken in a few episodes of Don Draper, Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell, and company. It was kind of like an athlete tipping his cap to an opponent; a “well-played, sir” kind of thing.

Unity Incident #3

The amazing moment that involved one of the heroes sitting with the First Lady, Army Ranger, Cory Remsburg. It just could not get more poignant:

I first met Cory Remsburg, a proud Army Ranger, at Omaha Beach on the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Along with some of his fellow Rangers, he walked me through the program – a strong, impressive young man, with an easy manner, sharp as a tack. We joked around, and took pictures, and I told him to stay in touch.

A few months later, on his tenth deployment, Cory was nearly killed by a massive roadside bomb in Afghanistan. His comrades found him in a canal, face down, underwater, shrapnel in his brain.

For months, he lay in a coma. The next time I met him, in the hospital, he couldn’t speak; he could barely move. Over the years, he’s endured dozens of surgeries and procedures, and hours of grueling rehab every day.

Even now, Cory is still blind in one eye. He still struggles on his left side. But slowly, steadily, with the support of caregivers like his dad Craig, and the community around him, Cory has grown stronger. Day by day, he’s learned to speak again and stand again and walk again – and he’s working toward the day when he can serve his country again.

“My recovery has not been easy,” he says. “Nothing in life that’s worth anything is easy.”

Cory is here tonight. And like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit.

The applause in the chamber was deafening. And lasted for at least five full minutes. Forgive me for abandoning my usual snarky cynicism, but that, was a deeply moving experience.

And it’s moments like those- the ones that belie the divisions and anger and hatred, that are good for the country to see. Yes, it’s mostly predictable and the ritual, for some, gets annoying. But there’s a, perhaps, naïve side of me that gets damn near misty-eyed when I see Americans standing together united by…anything. We need to see more, not less of that.

No More Justices at State of the Union Addresses?

We may have seen the last of Supreme Court Justices attending State of the Union speeches. As it is, they don’t allow cameras in the courtroom. And lately, they haven’t seemed disposed to wanting to share even audio arguments before the high court. How will we know they still exist?

Presumably, what reporters are left at the TV and Radio networks and maybe a newspaper guy or two will actually attend oral arguments and confirm sightings of the Supremes. It could get to the point that just seeing them will be more news than the cases they’re hearing.

Well, actually, Justice Roberts did turn up this week at the University of Alabama. All this came out in a question & answer session with students there. Chief Justice Roberts called it “very troubling,” that at the last State of the Union speech, President Obama singled the justices out for criticism for their recent ruling that allowed corporations and labor unions to spend as much as they want on political campaigns.

It was a rare moment, for sure. Apparently, only the third known time a President had ripped into the Supreme Court in a State of the Union speech. Justice Samuel Alito was caught on camera shaking his head at the President’s remarks and mouthing the words, “not true.”

And Justice Roberts apparently felt kind of threatened.

…there is the issue of the setting, the circumstances and the decorum. The image of having the members of one branch of government standing up, literally surrounding the Supreme Court, cheering and hollering while the court — according the requirements of protocol — has to sit there expressionless, I think is very troubling.

Justice Roberts and I have differing views on what is “very troubling.” War is “very troubling.” Unemployment is “very troubling.” My checking account balance is “very troubling.” Being surrounded by lawmakers disagreeing with you- I don’t know- “very troubling?”

And he added:

To the extent the State of the Union has degenerated into a political pep rally, I’m not sure why we’re there.

Oh my- imagine that- politics and partisanship at a State of the Union speech. How unusual. How new. How we’ve degenerated.

But-wait! What really seemed to bother the Chief Justice, if you go by the strict construction of his sentence, was that his colleagues from the court had to sit there “expressionless.” Dear High Court: Will you come back to future State of the Union Speeches if we let you bring in signs and blow-horns, bags of vegetables and rotten fruit?

But, alas, Justice Roberts is not alone. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and John Paul Stevens all share his repulsion at having to come to State of the Union speeches.

Frankly, I don’t know how I’m going to survive if they suddenly stop attending. No more “Mr. Speaker! The Justices of the Supreme Court!” No more wondering what they’re wearing under those black, flowing robes. No more of the vacant facial expressions. No more wondering if they’d be watching American Idol if they didn’t have to be at the big speech.

But what suspense next January as we all wait, dizzy with anticipation, to see if they show. I’m nodding off now just thinking about it.