Is the speech really the State of our Union?

During the State of the Union speech this week, my youngest son came into the bedroom where I was watching, laid down at the foot of the bed, and after watching for a few minutes asked, “Do they hate each other?” 

“No,” I said, hoping I wasn’t outright lying. “They just disagree on a lot of things.” 

“Why won’t those people clap?” he continued. 

“Because they don’t agree.” 

I started thinking about the way I felt watching State of the Union speeches when I was his age. I’m not sure of this memory. It may be faded by time, but I remember feeling safe and strong when the president spoke. I remember watching the whole chamber stand and clap, not all the time, but a lot. Both of my parents watched in their La-Z-Boy chairs, and I sat on the couch. If I asked too many questions, they shushed me.  

Last night, I couldn’t help feeling like the speech might be misnamed. It is no longer a speech on the state of our UNION. It is a speech on the state of the party in power, or the state of the economy, but certainly not of our union. If a married couple has millions of dollars in the bank, but they never speak to each other, how would you describe their union? Not so great. 

I’m not sure how many times President Trump insulted the previous administration, the “radical left,” California, Democrats, socialists and others who disagree with him on some key issues – but are still very much Americans. I stopped counting at twenty. It began in the first minute. “Three years ago, we launched the great American comeback,” he began. There are ways to talk about the strong position of the nation, which the president went on to do, without belittling the state of the nation when he took office. America has been a great nation for more than two centuries.  

President Trump went on to say, “The state of our Union is stronger than ever before.” I have to ask – is that true? He spoke for the first eighteen minutes about how strong the economy is, and by almost all measures including the jobs report out today, it is in fantastic shape, but are the economy and the union the same thing? 

I felt curious after watching the speech. Is this the way President Obama’s State of the Union speeches were? Did he brag this way? Belittle this way? Did they feel this way? I went back and watched his third speech which began this way, “It’s no secret that those of us here tonight have had our differences over the last two years. The debates have been contentious; we have fought fiercely for our beliefs. And that’s a good thing. That’s what a robust democracy demands.” 

Some of my friends were talking this week about the question my son asked – why no one in the chamber clapped at the obvious points. For instance, why wouldn’t you clap for unemployment being down? How could you not clap for poverty being on the decline? I agree, so I did a little research. Was it like that during Obama’s State of the Union’s? In his third, John Boehner was Speaker of the House. Not only did he and other Republicans clap, he and members of his party stood up, regularly, for issues of policy. But by the time his final year arrived, and Paul Ryan was Speaker, that spirit of camaraderie and bipartisanship seemed gone. Speaker Ryan and his caucus did not clap for coming out of the economic crisis or bringing the troops home. So, the playbook on not clapping for obvious things had been written long before this week.  

Which doesn’t make it okay.  

Was it acceptable that Speaker Pelosi ripped the written copy of the speech? Absolutely not. Was it appropriate that the president refused to shake her hand before the speech? Of course not.  

I have heard from insiders all my life that we get the elected officials we deserve. If our elected officials behave in ways that are unacceptable to us, we have the chance to choose new ones at regular intervals. We can voice our displeasure with them, in appropriate ways. We can conduct ourselves, in public and private, with tolerance and respect, thereby teaching our children that the kind of behavior we saw last night is not right. Hopefully by the time they grow up and take over the reins, they will live the values of brother and sisterhood we instill in them now.  

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