Somewhere in the middle of President Bush’s State of the Union address last evening, I found myself looking around the room and marveling at the elasticity of our democracy through power shifts between the major parties and among major political figures. The “room” I beheld was the actual House Chamber itself. Yes, there I was — realizing a long-ago student fantasy to be an eyewitness to a “live” State of the Union address. Even more amazing, I was sitting just a few seats away from First Lady Laura Bush and her special guests. Not to brag, but simply to recall this small piece of Trinity history for the record, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Trinity ’62) honored me and Trinity with an invitation to attend the address as her guest. (Prove it, you say? See this photo link to the New York Times illustration of the First Lady’s box — I’m in the coral jacket near the top — only the White House guests are identified, not the Speaker’s, but heck, just being there was amazing!)
Speaker Pelosi herself embodied the ambitious dreams of generations of Trinity Poli-Sci majors as she wielded the gavel with grace and firmness. What a proud moment for Trinity to see our sister alumna sitting next to Vice President Cheney, receiving the gracious congratulations of President Bush. His opening words were direct and elegant:
“…tonight, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own, as the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words: ‘Madam Speaker.’ In his day, the late congressman, Thomas d’Alessandro, Jr., from Baltimore, Maryland, saw Presidents Roosevelt and Truman at this rostrum. But nothing could compare with the sight of his only daughter, Nancy, presiding tonight as speaker of the House of Representatives. Congratulations, Madam Speaker.”
Many news reports and commentaries offer videos, text and insights into the President’s address and the Democratic response, and I will not repeat those observations here. Rather, for me the evening provided numerous examples of the power of ritual to bridge profound differences of opinion, as well as the genius of the 220 year-old document we call the Constitution of the United States.
The Constitution requires the President of the United States to “give to the Congress information on the state of the union” (Article II Section 3) but the form of this delivery of information is not specified. Until the mid-20th Century, the form of the address was usually in writing, but since President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the address has usually been delivered in-person by the President to a joint session of Congress.
Elaborate rituals of greeting and affirmation during the State of the Union address help to cushion the stark political differences always alive in the House Chamber, now more acute since the election that shifted control of Congress from Republicans to Democrats. Standing ovations greeted the Speaker (hooray! many cheers!), First Lady, Cabinet and President, and during the speech there were moments when the entire room stood again to applause in unison — support for the troops, cheers for the “heroes” mentioned at the end. Of course, moments of difference were also clear — Democrats lept up to cheer for reducing reliance on oil, Republicans cheered for a pledge of no new taxes. Sitting next to me in the “Executive Gallery” the spouses of the Supreme Court Justices sat quietly for the most part, telegraphing no opinions on issues that might be justiciable. The mob of journalists in the press gallery above the Speaker’s rostrum also betrayed no biases, quietly observing save for the cameras clicking and pages turning as they followed the President’s text.
Was it different, being there “in-person” instead of home watching on TV? Of course! I confess my attention was less on the speech itself, which I had already skimmed, and more on the dynamics of the Chamber’s dramatic figures — what were Vice President Cheney and Speaker Pelosi chatting about while they awaited the President’s arrival? Who is that man who looks so familiar in the next box — my goodness, it’s Michael J. Fox! In front of me, some members of the White House guest group sat on the gallery steps on small pillows emblazoned with the seal of the President of the United States. Two little girls in pink, young daughters of honoree Wesley Autrey (the New Yorker who saved a man from a subway train) chased up and down the aisle, then fell asleep before they could see the president honor their father. What other evening brings together Senators Kennedy and Lieberman and Lott and Clinton with Condi Rice, the Supreme Court Justices and the military Chiefs of Staff?
For a few brief hours every January, these chamber galleries gather witnesses to vast power, plain citizens like me along with the occasional celebrity. We come to see the Constitutional Balance of Powers in action. Senators and Congressional Representatives, President and Justices, military leaders and Cabinet leaders with strong political differences and equally strong commitments to the peaceful negotiation of those differences to shape the law and policy of the nation. The President’s speech is, in many ways, the foil for a much more remarkable statement to the world: democracy is only possible where freedom of thought, belief and expression prevails. When democracy really works, peace prevails and liberties are secure.
Our job as citizens is to be sure that all these powerful people remember that simple point: we grant them the power through our votes in order to ensure our freedom. When power becomes imbalanced, freedom is in danger. It’s not a bad thing for power to shift among the parties, for the President and Congress to have sharp differences about the major policy issues of this moment. In the passionate debates and strong statements of principles that will ensue over many issues in the months to come, the United States will regain some of the balance and perspective necessary to restore peace and achieve justice both abroad and at home.
Full coverage in the Washington Post
Full coverage in the New York Times