Jul/Aug 2005 Humor/Satire

Advice for a Fledgling Democracy:
Bag the State of the Union

by Todd Shy

Freedom may be on the march, but certain of its institutions are just a little too venerable to export with haste. I'm speaking specifically of the State of the Union address. The Iraqis, let us not mince words, are not ready. There are too many subtleties, blurred invisible by time, and without them, well, we don't want them to look silly.

Let's begin with the seating. While it is moving to see the Congressional House chamber divided neatly by political party (like members of Parliament or college football fans), is it feasible really that a fledgling democracy would see this as anything other than a battlefield sublime, ripe for taunting and partisan fanfare? What next, shall we offer them stockings and breeches? America can get by with the appearance of partisanship because the centuries have bred a deep love of common cause. The physical division is functional, in other words—our famous pragmatism—the aisles a kind of seam stitching Democrat to Republican like the red and white stripes of the flag. This all takes time. We were still a young republic when Preston Brooks, on the floor of the Senate, beat the sense out of Charles Sumner with a cane. My fellow Americans, that's a full century and a half behind us. And please remember, Cheney's eff bomb to Leahy was delivered beneath the dome, not on the Senate floor. Can a fledgling democracy recognize such subtleties? Our partisan dash is clubby, fraternal; try this in Iraq, well, I'm afraid they'll look frivolous.

Moreover, to the untrained eye, the State of the Union appears orchestrated and reproducible, when in fact two centuries have shaped an awful lot of nuance. Consider the rituals of applause. Unshaped by age, the eruptions will appear calculated, each side pouncing on phrases with apparent partisan applause, but there is a careful rhythm to the American dance that Iraqi TV may not be ready to follow. To use a solidly American analogy, if you don't know baseball, you will tempted simply to follow the movement of the ball, and you will miss the catcher running down the line to back up the throw, the batter in the on-deck circle kicking the bat with his cleats, the third-base coach wandering outside his chalked box. There is so much to take in at a State of the Union—the refusal of a Hillary Clinton to stand, or a John Kerry taking notes on his advance copy of the speech—that, if you don't know how to watch, will leave you focused on the president (or the vice-president working a lozenge). All fine as far as it goes, but you need a few seasons watching batting practice to really love the World Series.

Other gestures can be misinterpreted too: the president's obligatory smirk when the opposition stands up roaring, the sobriety of the generals and supreme court justices posing for some Rushmore, the special athlete and enlisted-member-of-the-military guests seated next to the First Lady, the rhetorical tributes to volunteer soldiers, which, without decades of precedence, will sound like relief that Harvard legacies and sons of politicians can avoid boot camp and Fallujah. The list goes on. Without the sobering tonic of time, in other words, a State of the Union address will publicize a republic's immaturities.

Finally, I must risk charges of ethnocentrism to say, election officials who collect ballots in Tupperware prove themselves—I'm sorry—unready for the habits of democracy. Conviction must ripen as instinct, like the campaigning candidate's organic thumbs-up, or the fastening of an American flag pin to the lapel. Think of the shock-troop Congressional staffers who did not have to be told to fly to Florida to barricade spoiled ballots. (Imagine the circus there if ballots had been sitting in plastic bins.) Think of the president throwing a strike in Yankee stadium after 9/11, or the eagles we release with the national anthem. Take baby steps, Iraq. You can't will yourself to have ripe instincts. And if you must include a State of the Union, don't televise it, please. I believe in your dotage you'll be grateful. After all, no one has the caning of Charles Sumner on tape.

It must be said that you do have one advantage, though. We are stuck with two parties in our Congress. We adjust to this tradition as we can. But with multiple parties spread out in your chamber, think of the options for new rituals. Why not, for example, consider doing the Wave? Otherwise, what's your finale? God bless the troops and God bless Mesopotamia? Come on. You can be more original than that.


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