President Obama speaks to the nation Tuesday night. And few Americans will actually recall what he said.
This is not Obama’s fault. The president will deliver important, acutely aspirational rhetoric about income inequality, fiscal policy, education initiatives, national security and maybe even a few lines about fighting ISIS. But by Wednesday morning, most of Obama’s remarks will dissolve into the political brume.
What people will remember is the sideshow.
The State of the Union sideshow assumes many forms. The speech of course is the main event, pitched under the big top. But the most-memorable acts are the low camp which accompany the speech. You know, the Capitol Hill equivalents of sword-swallowers, knife-throwers and bearded ladies. Political freaks of nature.
Some of this is contrived. A few lawmakers will make a fuss about “bipartisanship” and “trying to work with the other side.” That’s why in recent years there’s been a spate of declarations about lawmakers from opposite parties sitting with one another.
And then there’s the hubbub about whom members bring to the House chamber as their exalted guests. Two years ago, then-Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, wheeled-in Ted Nugent as his State of the Union patron. The Motor City Madman had declared the president a “subhuman mongrel” and said other things so-threatening that the rock star received a visit from the Secret Service.
It’s as though the effort is to find an individual whose aesthetics and comportment are incongruous with the decorum of the event.
Perhaps that’s why then-Rep. Vance McAllister, R-La., petitioned hirsute Willie Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame to attend last year’s State of the Union message as his guest.
President Reagan launched this practice of stocking the gallery in the House chamber with notable people, sometimes as props, to emphasize a political point or salute American values. In 1982, Reagan invited then-Congressional Budget Office employee Lenny Skutnik to attend his State of the Union speech. Two weeks before Reagan’s address, Skutnik bounded into the freezing Potomac River near the 14th Street Bridge to save passenger Priscilla Tirado bobbing in the ice-clogged water. An Air Florida jet had just taken off from what is now known as Reagan National Airport two miles downstream. The plane crashed into the 14th Street Bridge, killing 78 people. Tirado couldn’t grab a rescue line dropped to help pluck her out of the bone-chilling waters from a helicopter hovering above. Skutnik tore off his coat and shoes and leaped into the Potomac, dragging Tirado to shore.
That prompted Reagan to invite Skutnik to sit next to first lady Nancy Reagan in the president’s box in the House chamber for the 1982 speech. The House chamber erupted in a lengthy standing ovation for Skutnik when the president praised his heroism.
Today, presidential invites to State of the Union are part of the fabric.
But one never quite knows what will emerge as the sideshow to a Joint Session of Congress with the president speaking.
Take 2013, when Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., clumsily groped for a water bottle as he delivered the official Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union speech.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., stole the entire show (though not at a State of the Union address) from Obama during a Joint Session of Congress on health care in September 2009. The president argued that the plan wouldn’t insure illegal immigrants. That drew wails of protests from Republicans.
“You lie!” charged Wilson from the rear of the chamber. That prompted catcalls from Democrats and a glare which could have killed corn from then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sitting directly behind Obama.
Few outside of Washington had ever heard of a backbencher like Wilson before that night. But the South Carolina Republican soon became a household name. A few days later, the House of Representatives voted to rebuke Wilson for hectoring the president during a formal address.
And then there was last year’s State of the Union sideshow. In fact, this sideshow didn’t unfold until well after Obama left the Capitol after his speech. Across the street from the Capitol, NY1 reporter Michael Scotto interviewed then-Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., in the Rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building. Scotto started to ask the New York Republican about a criminal investigation involving the congressman. Grimm exploded in anger, towering over Scotto and (on-camera), threatening to “break” him “in half” and toss him over the balcony.
Later that night, Grimm’s office published a statement ripping Scotto for what was termed a “disrespectful and cheap shot” at the congressman. In the news release, Grimm boasted that he “verbally took the reporter to task and told him off, because I expect a certain level of professionalism.” Grimm concluded in saying, “I doubt that I am the first Member of Congress to tell off a reporter and I am sure I won’t be the last.”
Grimm is the last in something these days. He’s the last member of Congress to resign. He did so earlier this month after pleading guilty in December to federal tax evasion charges.
So step right up Tuesday night to the Capitol Hill midway. It’s State of the Union. The speech may offer some substance. But the real carnival can be found in the sideshows. Few will recall much about the president’s remarks. But they’ll sure remember the flea circus and fire eaters.