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January 24, 2007

Blogging From D.C. -- Bush Speaking Into the Void

Last night I had the opportunity to do something few Americans do: I attended the State of the Union speech. From my vantage point inside the gallery -- balcony, front row, seat 19 -- I got a view and a sense of the president that just doesn't come through the T.V. screen. And, unfortunately, for him, it's not looking very good. As Dan Baltz phrased it, in this morning's Washington Post, "Bush may have been speaking into the void". That's putting it charitably.

Despite facing a newly emboldened Democratic Congress and an approval rating somewhere between toilet and sewer, Bush rattled through all his same old talking points about unending war, terror, evil, enemies everywhere, 9-11, 9-11, 9-11, conflating Al Qaeda with Hamas and Hezbollah, pushing for tax cuts and tax credits, cutting our demand for oil by re-upping nuclear power, insisting upon up-or-down votes on his extremist judges, and oh yeah... he really wants bipartisanship but, as usual, the onus is on Democrats, not the White House. It's worse than Balz implies. Bush is a man who is lost in a self-created world of delusion and denial, and that was clear to the assembled crowd from the moment he started to speak.

For some reason, the volume on Bush's mike was really low. Combine that with the continuously tepid responses he got throughout most of the speech (Democrats sat in their seats and sat on their hands through 90% of it) and it all had the effect of making his presence seem... small. Weak. Ineffective. He's not just a "lame duck". He's practically invisible and inaudable, wandering alone in unknown territory, finding no outstretched arms to help guide him to safety. Of course, there's Joe Lieberman, who I'm forever compelled to refer to as Lonely Lieberman, owing to his solitary support for Bush from among the Democratic ranks. Each time Bush spouted another neo-con talking point (increasing troops in Iraq, fighting extremists all over the Middle East and around the world) Lonely Lieberman jumped up from his seat like a jack-in-the-box on crack, applauding wildly. But he was the only Democrat to do so. At one point he tried to get Rep. Carolyn Maloney (NY), next to him, to stand up and applaud with him. She complied for about half a second and then sat back down. Before the speech began, the Democrats, looking ecstatic to be the majority, shook hands, slapped backs, shared hugs and kisses, and kibbitzed with each other in little circles of four and five. There stood Lonely Lieberman, at the very center of all this buzzing social activity, anxiously waiting for someone -- anyone -- to approach him, or call him over to their group. But no one did. It was a pathetic sight, reminiscent of lunchtime in high school, where one universally disliked kid spends the entire lunch hour standing alone, shunned from every clique. Not even his old friends from junior high want anything to do with him.

The biggest standing ovation, with the most sustained applause, came at the very beginning, when Bush said those two magic words: "Madam Speaker". I actually found myself standing and "woo-hooing" at the top of my voice. It was a pretty damned exciting moment. I sat next to a staffer from Rep. Tanner's (D-TN) office. He'd been to SOTUs before and clued me in to who some of the people were, "yes, that's the press pool up above and behind the podium looking extremely bored", pointing out where the First Lady would be sitting, telling me about how the new D.C. mayor, Adrian Fenty, had refused to sit next to her (he ended up in the section to our left), etc. Since I was on an aisle I also had the pleasure of being surrounded by a gaggle of press photographers, who were like an old boys club, endlessly joking and vying for the best shots. After the speech was over they were trying to get a photo of two people who weren't physically close enough to each other to be in the same frame. "C'mon, c'mon, sidle over. Oh, look at that, they're avoiding each other like the plague!" I leaned over and asked "Who are you guys trying to photograph?" They replied, "Hillary and Barak! But they're ten feet from each other and won't play along." These guys definitely know what makes for the winning shots.

It was pretty affecting to look up at the domed ceiling, the stained-glass window with the eagle emblem right at the top, look down and see Pat Leahy, Dick Durbin, Keith Ellison, Jon Tester, Patty Murray and all the other electeds and realize they are just people, not royalty. They're people we invest so much power in, so much hope. They have an awesome responsibility -- to us -- and at times I don't think they realize what the priorities are. But last night it seemed like they finally "get it". What will the next two years be like? WIll I be disappointed once again, or will they start to right the sinking ship of Bush's policies?

My lasting impression: while Bush was at the podium, energetically glorifying war, I was glancing over at the army sergeant directly across the aisle from me. He still had a new bandage over the spot where his right eye used to be. I didn't want to stare, but it was hard not to. There were fresh red scars and some sort of healing lubricant rubbed on the eye socket, now permanently sealed closed. As I saw this young (maybe early 20's?) sergeant politely stand and applaud as the president entered and later left the House chamber, I knew what I was thinking. But I wondered what he was thinking. And I wondered, as he looked at George Bush through his one remaining eye, whether he felt it all had been worth it to go and fight in a war that 70% of America now says was a terrible mistake. And as I looked down the long hallway on my way out of the building, I spotted two other uniformed young men, one missing both legs, one missing an arm and a leg, and I thought about who it is that is making the sacrifices in this war. But the only thing I know for sure is that, while Bush's presidency is in a spiraling descent, he and Cheney and their cohorts at Halliburton will still find a way to pull out a win, in the form of dollars. And the young sergeant will go home to find that he will, indeed, see life very differently from here on out.

Posted by shoephone on January 24, 2007 at 10:43 AM in National and International Politics | Permalink


I'm glad that was the vibe in the room. On tv, the ovations and applause sounded thunderous and the audience seemed to be jumping up and down in their seats much of the time.

Posted by: howieinseattle | Jan 24, 2007 11:05:24 AM

Hi Howie - Believe me, it's a totally different experience from inside the place! The Dems were really showing their displeasure with their silence. That was very gratifying. Bush is toast.

Posted by: shoephone | Jan 24, 2007 11:13:22 AM

This is beautifully written -- as if from a simultaneously immediate and historical perspective. The players disappearing into the past as we see and think about them.

I am glad to hear that the impression of the whole audience giving thunderous applause and "standing behind the president" that came through the media -- was just more media hype, that people actually did seem to get it that this is a failed presidency.

I'm scared sh*less that these congresspeople don't see what we're poised on the brink of -- militarily and in terms of environmental, economic, and social security.

Posted by: Noemie Maxwell | Jan 24, 2007 12:33:37 PM

I agree with Noemie, beautifully written.

This is a fascinating reflection of your first hand experience watching Bush slowly sink into the abyss.

I also love the way you characterize the photographers and their focus on Obama and Clinton. Very entertaining stuff.

Posted by: carla | Jan 24, 2007 4:28:20 PM

Eloquent account and gratitude to you for sharing a quite different take of 'reality' than what traditional media chooses to share with us on our televisions.

You brought home a sobering, and poignant juxtaposition of limbless soldiers who survived their deployments against the hoopla of political gamesmanship. A gentle reminder of who is paying the heavy costs of political cowardice.

Thank you for being there and sharing with us at home. Another example of courageous citizen reporting that 'traditional' media continues to shy away from...

Posted by: Lietta Ruger | Jan 25, 2007 8:05:26 AM

shoe, I might have expected to have any number of responses while reading a first-hand account of the SOTU -- laughing, sneering, cussing, jeering. I didn't expect to end up tearing-up over one. What a moving piece this is: thank you.

Posted by: lotus | Jan 25, 2007 8:28:52 AM

Shoephone, that was a great commentary. Like howieinseattle noted, it sounds a whole lot different on TV than it apparently does in person. Not that I'm that surprised, mind you, given how we seem to be hearing over and over from the same war supporters we always have, and the skeptics and opponents don't seem to get the time of day on TV.

Posted by: Cujo359 | Jan 28, 2007 7:11:11 PM

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