Humble State of the Union

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My eyes were on the president last night as he walked — strutted, ranch style — into the chamber for the State of the Union Address. You can picture the splendid entry, even if you missed the event. His demeanor was almost classic Bush 43 — a broad smile, sincere and a bit uneasy; arms hanging, but not loosely; a furrowed brow (more now than ever); and tired, intent eyes.

It was almost classic, but not quite. Something was different.

President Bush looked humble, or humbled — I’m not sure which.

Political allies and foes alike reached into the aisle — never across, of course — to shake his hand. The brashest among them whispered confidences of little importance in his ear. We’ve seen that before. It’s when he chuckles, jokes, and seems to feel most at ease, like he’s back at the ranch, with doting family friends.

I generally listen to the State of the Union Address for content. Between the lines of scripted bureaucracy, ordinary citizens can get a feel for a president’s vision for America, where we are and where he wants us to go. Sometimes I’m swooped away by its elegance and inspired by the patriotic pomp.

Not on Tuesday. The speech may have been elegant and may even have inspired; I wouldn’t know. Out of my character, I wasn’t paying much attention to content. Maybe I was afraid there couldn’t be anything too new. What is here already is all too important.

Instead, I was looking up at President Bush, then down at members of the congress, over at the First Lady and business elites, and finally around at the sprinkling of ordinary folk — show and tell symbols of happier news.

I was looking out at this swath of America and strangely, almost everyone looked alike. They looked humble, or at least humbled. Not broken — humbled. And that’s how I felt too.

Yes, I know, there was still politics at play in every nook and cranny of the fabled hall. Some watched with bated breath to see when Madame Speaker would clap, stand, or look away. Television cameras vied to catch news-making reactions from any of the 2008 presidential contenders. They acted cool. But none of that bothered me; we’ve come to expect a lot of hokum coming out of Washington.

What caught me off guard was to confront America in silent mourning. The domestic proposals as a whole sounded good. The promise for bipartisanship sounded even better. But we had something else on our minds.

The state of our union is different today than five years ago, when President Bush began his address with these words:

We last met in an hour of shock and suffering. In four short months, our nation has comforted the victims, begun to rebuild New York and the Pentagon, rallied a great coalition, captured, arrested, and rid the world of thousands of terrorists, destroyed Afghanistan's terrorist training camps, saved a people from starvation, and freed a country from brutal oppression. (Applause.)

The American flag flies again over our embassy in Kabul. Terrorists who once occupied Afghanistan now occupy cells at Guantanamo Bay. (Applause) And terrorist leaders who urged followers to sacrifice their lives are running for their own. (Applause.)

The applause was thunderous and it came from all sides, from both sides of the aisle and from every state in the union. America had been attacked. America responded. And, of course, America won.

That kind of quick success is all my generation has ever known. We may not have known precisely how strong we were, but we were certain we were at least stronger than everyone else. Today we are convinced we are very strong, but we aren’t so sure how much that even matters.

For the first time in a long time, the only thing anybody knows for sure is that when it comes to the nation’s number one priority, nobody knows exactly what to do about anything.

That’s humbling, for sure.

I turned off the television and on came the inner light. This dose of humble pie may turn out to be a very good thing. America is not strong and great because of her military might, economic power, and political weight. She is as good as her people are good, and humble people are better than the proud.

Tough times have always forged great Americans. Why not now?

God Bless, Father Jonathan

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