Attending from the press box (gallery, in Washingtonian jargon) to the State of the Union address is a lot like watching an orchestra play a couple of meters above the place where the director / speaker, the president Joe Biden. Close to his baton, in the front row, were the strings this Tuesday night: the members of his Cabinet on one side, and, on the other, a group of present and past Supreme Court judges. These were the only ones who remained silent as graves during the 73 minutes, without intermission, of the political recital, unmoved by the obvious obligation to neutrality that is implicit in their charges.
Behind them sat the rest of the musicians: the Democratic performers on the right, and the Republicans on the left. Tonight it was easier than usual to distinguish which score was played by one and the other.
The former rose to applaud as if equipped with springs in their legs as Biden reviewed the achievements of his first two years in the White House, avoiding hot topics ―the classified papers recently found in his house or the alleged Chinese spy balloon he has provoked a diplomatic crisis with Beijing― and called for unity to continue delving into his agenda: help Ukraine, deal with China, invest in infrastructure, fight the opioid crisis, reform the police… It was his second speech as president and also a test of his doubtful abilities to run for the White House. At this point, he seems convinced to launch himself again, despite his advanced age (he turned 80 in November) and despite the fact that the polls do not exactly speak of enthusiasm for the idea among voters, his own and much less foreigners. .
Seen from above, the Republicans, the majority in the House of Representatives after the last elections, formed a compact tide of ties and dark suits. They looked at their cell phones and seemed engrossed in their things: the shopping list, the weekend game, the appointment with the doctor, the grandson’s play… At times, they woke up from their lethargy and, in groups, cheered by allusions part of the speech, when the president reviewed the measures that some of them supported in these two years of parliamentary struggle in the few cases of bipartisanship that the political class of Washington allows itself in times of polarization.
And then there was Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who “dressed all in white with her coat on (the House of Representatives was more of a walk-in cooler on Tuesday; turning the air conditioner on full blast is another stout American political tradition) ― offered a recital of boos, dissonant gestures and shouts at the wrong time. “The Chinese are spying on us!” she said. “Liar!” she howled. “Secure the border!” she bellowed.
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In the midst of their atonal symphony, the orchestra would occasionally hit the same note as the conductor ushered in some of the evening’s soloists: the guest list for a solemn ceremony returning to full capacity for the first time. since the pandemic broke out three years ago.
In the grandstand of the honorees was Bono, singer of the Irish rock band U2 and leading global activist, sitting next to Paul Pelosi, husband of Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi. She is she was listening to the president’s speech from the pit for the first time since he gave up his position as speaker from the House of Representatives to Republican Kevin McCarthy, who was seen enjoying himself like a child with a new toy. That toy was a mallet with which he led a session in which he did not do enough to placate his own.
Paul Pelosi was attacked in November by a fan gorged on conspiracy theories who showed up at the marital residence in San Francisco looking for his wife and armed with a hammer. Biden quoted him to talk about the dangers that, in his opinion, beset American democracy due to episodes like this. That threat is one of his fetish themes, and he took it out to, incidentally, cite the assault on the Capitol. During the hammer point attack, Pelosi suffered a fractured skull, so he attended the speech wearing a hat, even though House rules forbid it.
To the left of Bono and Pelosi was Brandon Tsay, the 26-year-old “hero” who during the recent Chinese New Year celebrations disarmed the guy who had just killed 11 people in a Monterey Park (California) dance hall and avoided an even greater tragedy. To the right of the odd couple, he listened to the words of President Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States. She was already invited last year, when Biden’s first speech came six days after the start of the Russian invasion. Almost a year later, the end of the war seems far away, but Washington’s commitment to the kyiv cause remains unwavering.
At the other end of the row sat RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, the mother and stepfather of Tire Nichols, a 29-year-old African-American man who was fatally beaten by five police officers, also black, in Memphis. Just a few weeks ago, the Wellses were just two anonymous citizens with anonymous problems. On Tuesday, they turned their backs on the first lady, Jill Biden, and Doug Emhoff, husband of the vice president, Kamala Harris, and presented themselves to the country as painful proof of an issue that urgently needs to be resolved: that of police brutality. Biden asked congressmen to put aside their differences and move forward with a law that has been stuck in the Capitol for two years. At the end of the State of the Union address, RowVaughn Wells was sitting in a hall of Congress, her face tired and her tears dry, as if she had passed another stop on her particular ordeal of tragedy and media attention.
Other unsung heroes caught the spotlight: small business owners, immigrants, the father of a fentanyl victim, even a Holocaust survivor. Heroines like Sara, a “proud” member of the “cowboys from heaven” squad that raised the urban profile of Cincinatti (Ohio) and that served Biden to defend his infrastructure investment program. Or Ava, who “was one year old when she was diagnosed with a rare type of kidney cancer” and who followed the speech, the president said, from the White House. From there, the girl was able to listen to the promises of the Democratic leader to reduce mortality from the disease by half in the next 25 years.
That was shortly before Biden uttered one of his favorite phrases: “We are the United States of America and there is nothing, nothing that is beyond our capabilities if we work together on it.” Before, too, that Republicans and Democrats slipped out of the chamber and each continued to play his own score before the media that awaited them in the National Statuary Hall of the Capitol.
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