I didn’t expect better, but for some foolish reason, I had hoped for better. When it comes to the annual State of the Union address, by now we all know, it’s not the words that matter anymore, it’s the images. All of this is, after all, a television show — especially in a presidential election year. The pictures stay in our minds. The words, unless they truly soar or shock, fade quickly.
On Tuesday, the pictures were these: The president of the United States turning his back and refusing to shake the hand of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who had spearheaded an impeachment effort against him. And the speaker, after the president’s speech, tearing a copy of it in half.
More than any substance or lack of it, those two images show the political divide in our nation today, and they show how far our politics have devolved. This column is destined to make no one happy, because I’m not happy with either action.
I was disappointed when President Donald Trump declined to shake Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hand before the speech. I understood why he wouldn’t. She has laid it on pretty thick during the impeachment pursuit. And he feels like it was a political ploy. His word of choice has been “hoax.”
Yet Trump entered the chamber as the winner. He was less than 24 hours from an acquittal. And the political landscape is such that Pelosi’s efforts would, to this point, have appeared to be a political failure at worst and ineffective flailing at best.
Trump has never been more popular as the U.S. president than he was when he stepped into the Capitol to give his speech. His job approval during impeachment has grown stronger.
The man seen as his chief rival, Joe Biden, the man he wanted Ukraine to investigate — all of which led to the impeachment charges — is on political life support, having finished fourth in the Iowa caucuses, or at least, whatever passes for fourth when they can’t seem to get the ballots counted.
If ever there were a time for Trump to summon a magnanimous gesture, this would’ve been it. You do it to show respect to the office of the speaker, and to acknowledge the invitation and importance of the House of Representatives. That Trump couldn’t muster it is not surprising, but nonetheless disappointing.
Pelosi’s post-speech actions were no less disappointing. I watched, like everyone, Pelosi’s demonstrative ripping up of Trump’s speech after he finished talking, conspicuously in view of cameras that were still trained on the president. I kept feeling as if I had seen that gesture somewhere before. I knew that look. Where had I seen it?
Then it came to me. I see it at Churchill Downs, every Kentucky Derby day, after the race. It is the gesture thousands make with their worthless mutuel tickets — after they bet on the wrong horse. It is a gesture, yes, of disgust, but also of defeat.
Pelosi was hoping to convey disgust and disdain for the president’s message. Unconsciously, however, it was a gesture of defeat. She gambled politically. She bet on a longshot. And, as those of us who cover horse racing will tell you, a lot of times when you do that, you lose.
Nobody who follows politics closely thought impeachment had a prayer of success. Under her leadership, the house rushed it through, came up with two articles of impeachment that were fairly soft, and dawdled before delivering them them to the senate, where they were dead on arrival.
The house managers were in such a hurry to ram impeachment through on a vote they knew they would win that they took shortcuts that completely undermined their second article and made the first article too vague. Proof of this is that they were still looking for new testimony to prove the first article even as they were presenting their opening arguments in the Senate.
So they are left with little to cheer but an empty gesture, and their trophy is a few torn pieces of paper. This is not the kind of victory those on the left are looking for. Pelosi’s actions have been applauded on the left, but if results matter, her leadership now has to be in question.
Trump comes away with acquittal in the Senate, another battering ram to use against the Democrats, a weakened Joe Biden, an all-time high approval rating, and an image of Pelosi to use in TV commercials, further rallying his base, which doesn’t need much rallying.
I know, of course, civility is dead. And nobody has done more to kill it than Trump. But it was teetering long before him. He simply is the personification of what American politics had become over the past 20 years, taken to the extreme. He says and does in the open what many have heretofore said and done only in private, or with more palatable made-for-TV polish. But let’s not pretend he hasn’t Tweet-blasted into oblivion whatever restraints remained.
Allow me a futile historical observation. It is amazing to me that Teddy Roosevelt could show up at a parade held for the express purpose of protesting him, and smile all the way through it, winning the respect, if not the affection, of many of those very people who came to jeer him just for his sheer act enduring the taunts. He even complimented some of the floats and signs meant to demean him, and asked if he could have some signs as souvenirs.
It is remarkable to me that Dwight Eisenhower, for all of his military background, made a promise to himself while still at West Point never to say anything to another man that would make him feel less of himself because of what he did or where he came from.
How far we have come.
The trolls, it seems, have taken over. Without question, you have to be tough to survive in politics these days. But here’s some breaking history news – you always have had to be tough to survive politically.
I miss the days when we could do that with some semblance of mutual respect.