Tuesday night’s State of the Union speech was routine in many ways. There’s the president’s long walk to the podium after being announced by the Sergeant at Arms, “Mister Speaker, the President of the United States.” The president then shakes hands with as many lawmakers as possible, which isn’t easy since they’re all elbowing each other in the ribs while jockeying for position on the aisle.
The speech itself, as expected from one of America’s all-time great speechmakers, was brilliantly written and masterfully delivered. It rose in cadence and pace as he went along — first through the foreign policy section, where President Obama promised an end to the war in Afghanistan while shaking his fist at North Korea and Iran - then the domestic policy section where he outlined the path to growth and job creation, including increasing the minimum wage to $9 an hour.
But when he got around to the section on gun control, he pivoted from dignified statesman to fire-and-brimstone preacher. He pointed out the parents of the promising young girl killed by gunfire only a mile from his Chicago home, and the families of the innocent victims in Newtown and Aurora, and gravely wounded former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, and charged congress with dragging its feet on gun control legislation.
“They deserve a vote!” Obama bellowed again and again, pointing to the victims of gun violence and bringing the faithful Democrats to their feet in wild applause. Even Republicans, who had been sitting on their hands through the entire speech, were shamed into a tepid ovation, lest they be seen as unsympathetic to the victims of America’s mad obsession with bigger and more powerful firearms.
Later, after having had time to get their stories straight, Republican pundits and strategists chastised the president for using those victims of violence as a prop - essentially turning tragedy to his advantage by using it for a bit of political theater.
There is, admittedly, some truth to that. Obama did use the moment as political theater, and did indeed highlight those families and victims of tragedy to force a serious national conversation on gun control. But so what? First, he did it masterfully and without the slightest indignity to those families. And second, since when did the GOP suddenly get righteous about using a tragedy to advance a political agenda? The Patriot Act, the casual use of torture, warrantless searches and imprisonment, and a thousand other Republican policies came as a direct result of the GOP playing on the national emotions after 9/11.
Then the president broke it wide open at the end. Obama told the story of a Florida woman who waited in a long line for many hours for the chance to vote, and whose determination inspired those who waited in line with her. That woman, 102-year old Desiline Victor, stole the show.
Even orange-faced John Boehner, who fully supported the various voter suppression policies and initiatives of his fellow Republicans in this election — those policies directly responsible for her pain and inconvenience, was forced to stand and applaud Desiline, who smiled and waved at Obama like he was her grandson.
My favorite part, though, was the Republican response to the State of the Union, delivered by their newest Great Brown Hope, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Apparently, after Bobby Jindal’s disastrous performance in the role in 2009, they needed another minority face, and Rubio — young, handsome and articulate, fills the bill.
Rubio’s response, though, was sad and amateurish. He accused Obama of hating the free market system, raising taxes and several other sins — none of which were mentioned at all in Obama’s speech. It was as if his GOP bosses just grabbed one of Paul Ryan’s old speeches from last year out of the office trash can and pushed it into Rubio’s hand two minutes before sending him out to deliver it.
Looking uncomfortable and not at all ready for prime time, Rubio wiped his brow, wiped his lips, and wiped the sweat off his face. He even hilariously leaned out of the camera shot to grab a bottle of water, stealing a glance back at the camera as he sipped nervously before continuing.
Rubio’s problem, though, is the same as Jindal’s. The GOP isn’t interested in changing their policies or platform to appeal to minorities — they just assume that we’ll think better of them if those same racist, xenophobic, homophobic, backward policies are delivered by someone with darker skin.
Next year, if Rubio turns out not to be the golden child they’d hoped, maybe the Republican response will just be Justice Clarence Thomas screaming, “You lie!”
Daryl Gale is the city editor of the Philadelphia Tribune.