Civility Loses—SOTU 2020
Last evening President Trump delivered his third State of the Union address to the nation and combined houses of Congress. The speech and its proposals, however, will not be remembered as much as the pettiness and showmanship that attended it. That is a shame. The State of the Union address should be an outlining of the President’s agenda that can then be discussed and debated on its merits by the nation’s Congress and citizenry.
Last night the President of the United States seemingly snubbed the Speaker of the House when she offered her hand for the traditional handshake. She retaliated by eschewing the traditional language in her introduction of the President to the assembled body. There were campaign rally chants on one side of the aisle, and boos and yelled dissent from the other. Members of congress walked out mid-speech. A grieving father shouted angrily about gun laws. There was the controversial and unprecedented awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the speech, as well as the public reunification of a military family, and other seemingly reality tv moments. Then, at the very end, the Speaker of the House deliberately, in front of cameras, tore her copy of the President’s written speech in half.
This absolute lack of decorum and civility on both sides illustrates more vividly than anything else just how broken the two-party system in Washington, D.C. is.
Starting with Thomas Jefferson and continuing until 1913, the State of the Union was delivered via letter from the president to the congress. It was simple and gave the president’s perspective on the past year and his goals for the upcoming one. The first radio broadcast SOTU was in 1922 and the first televised broadcast was in 1947. In 1982 President Reagan began the practice of honoring specific guests invited to the speech.
The speech since 1982 has become a greater made-for-tv spectacle than mere policy address. This reality TV feel, however, was never as prevalent as it was last night. And in the last few years, beginning during the Obama administration, the hyper-partisanship in the chamber has become more pronounced, culminating in the spectacle that was last night’s address. There were just a small handful of moments that had bipartisan support. I was impressed when Senator Sinema of Arizona stood and applauded even though the rest of her party remained seated, for example.
We have reached a point overall, however, of throwing decorum and principles to the wind and acting as though everything is only about the team we belong to, not the nation at large. The SOTU seemed merely like a grand version of a pep rally. Both sides acted with immature pettiness.
As a member of congress, I will not be engaged only for MY team. I will treat the office with the dignity it deserves. I will listen to the speeches that I don’t agree with and show respect, for only by listening can I understand the perspective of the other side. I will shake the hands of those I disagree with.
I will work hard to restore civility to our national discourse by the way I respond and in all my interactions. I will always represent my district, and my country, with behavior befitting an adult – not the raucous name-calling childishness that dominated the State of the Union last night. We must do better than that.