Graphic: Word cloud of SOTU address/ PoliticalWire.
By Dennis B. Roddy
Congress has long been a sort of dysfunctional Valhalla, where happy warriors traded mighty blows by day then repaired to mead halls to drink and feast while the battle wounds healed by night. Then, because it was their nature, they would rise the next morning and start anew.
Occasionally things get out of hand. Notably, in 1856, a South Carolina congressman named Preston Brooks, gallantly crossed not only the partisan aisle but the hallways dividing the chamber, to cane Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner. For the most part, though, the colossal ruction that was our government seemed a fair trade for the amazing things extruded at journey’s end: social security, victory at war, the commonality of purpose that was the war on poverty or the mending of a union rent by slavery.
Today, the place is like the eighth grade lunch table and, last night, for the sake of Barack Obama and as a sign of civility, congressional leaders, such as we have them, decided to move some people. Peter King, R-NY, sat next to Anthony Weiner, D-NY. Olympia Snowe and Mary Landrieu paired up. John Kerry snuggled with John McCain. All that was missing were the corsages.
When politics is functioning right, the tribunes of each party sit with their own and howl or glower or otherwise illuminate the political differences. Occasionally some jackass will shout out “You lie” or a spectator can hurl a cabbage or whatever. But for the most part, one side yowls with approval and the other glowers and the viewers on whom this silly thing is inflicted can at least keep track of which side hates which.
Not now. They decided that the State of the Union was inter-special date-night. They chose civility at precisely the time it would confuse the populace.
Today, each side will resume tossing hellish calumny and rendering progress -- be it to stage left or stage right -- nigh well impossible.
Now, even the drama of debate is denied us. Once, where southern senators once read recipes for lard-heavy cuisine into the Congressional Record or Everett Dirksen, his voice failing, would cleverly call for a moment of silent prayer, the mere threat of filibuster simply stalls the works. Even the opera boffa of politics is denied us. I am left without a viable argument for states rights nor a recipe for cheese grits.
Last night was called “our sputnik moment” but, just as our early satellites orbited meaninglessly, so did the rhetoric of the moment. It was inevitable. Where once we were the world’s refuge, now we are a stew of arguments no longer joined by a purpose bigger than the instant.
With Vice President Biden and House Speaker John Boenher serving as competing gargoyles behind him, The Obama called on Congress “to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies.” Biden applauded. Boehner sat there like a man just informed that someone misread the original spinal tap and he’d get the next one free.
The president encouraged people to become teachers. “Your country needs you,” he told them. This is, I suppose, noble. Of my four siblings, three have worked as educators. The former Mrs. Roddy was an educator. I myself am responsible for boring students at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown in 1986. Only my current wife is guiltless of attempting to inform the young and, of the lot, she seems to speak the most plainly. That is to say, unlike me, people listen to her. Our country does not need teachers; it needs to learn how to learn.
It must also learn how to feel. One of the more troubling rhetorical dodges of last night involved immigration. It is no secret that many today would like to catch, roast and eat every available undocumented person who makes the mistake of crossing from Mexico to the U.S. Canadians, at the moment, are regarded as inedible.
The president played to the galleries by talking of securing our borders. His nod to tolerance was to say we should not deport young people “who could be further enriching this nation.” All things are market driven in this world now. We don’t do something because it is compassionate, or because it is moral, or because we believe in simple decency. These people could enrich our nation. They are young. And if they are neither shall we send them back or just harvest their organs?
The assembled congressmen and senators and cabinet members and whoever else was able to crash the event applauded last night’s speech, many of them sincerely. It was an occasion of surpassing politeness, of utter enthusiasm until the president called on a freeze in spending for the next five years. He spoke of “painful cuts” and frozen salaries of “hard-working federal employees.” Possibly, he is suggesting this because we are broke. It was redolent of the times I ran out of money, fell off my bar stool and took a solemn pledge to drink no more until I could.
Here’s the point of it all: government should take care of its citizens. In return, its citizens have a moral obligation to conduct themselves usefully. The economy is here to help us and it is not God. God is God. And God help us if somebody doesn’t step up soon and point this out, because right now we’re talking about civility as if it could be instilled by putting people in suits next to other people in suits and we’re talking about government as a service industry, not an extension of the people asked to heed it without so much as an invitation to Capitol prom night.