Act 7: Dignity

So many roads, so much at stake

Too many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake

Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take

To find dignity

(Dignity, lyrics by Bob Dylan)

John Shearer photograph

On February 4, 2020, Americans were cheated.

Either as a Trump supporter or a Never Trump’er, we were entitled to a bit of dignity during the State of the Union address (SOTU). Instead Democrats and Republicans came together in a bipartisan moment of disrespect.

We’ve been here before under similar circumstances. We did measurably better then.

Impeachment loomed over the country in 1974 and 1999. Still, two different presidents and an opposing Congress managed to give dignity a front-row seat in the People’s House. I was in my early 20s when I watched Richard Nixon’s January 30, 1974 SOTU, and in my late 40s twenty-five years later when Bill Clinton delivered his on January 19, 1999.

Both speeches were judged as either brilliant or bunk, depending on where people placed their loyalties. Nixon, a Republican, gave his 1974 address to a Congress controlled by Democrats. Clinton, a Democrat, gave his 1999 address to a Congress controlled by Republicans. 

President Nixon, Vice President Ford, Speaker Albert ( AP file photograph)

While informal Watergate hearings were well underway, the formal impeachment inquiry of Richard Nixon started on February 6, 1974, just seven days after his SOTU. Nixon and Speaker Carl Albert shook hands. And Albert presented Nixon to Congress with “distinct privilege and high personal honor.” At the end of Nixons’s address, Albert again extended his hand. Nixon took it and the men shook hands.

Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives on December 19, 1998, thirty-one days before his 1999 SOTU. Because Clinton’s Senate trial was already underway (it started on January 7, 1999), there were suspicions that Clinton might postpone the SOTU. Rather than withering and whining in the face of impeachment, Clinton gave his address as scheduled.

President Clinton, Vice President Gore, Speaker Hastert (Douglas Graham, Congressional Quarterly file photo)

Bill Clinton shook hands with Dennis Hastert, the newly elected Republican Speaker of the House. And Hastert introduced the President of the United States with “high privilege and distinct honor.” Like Nixon and Albert, Clinton and Hastert shook hands again at the end of the SOTU.

Nixon dodged the matter of Watergate through his formal remarks, but added a personal note before leaving the rostrum. Nixon called on Congress to bring investigations to an end declaring that “one year of Watergate is enough.” 

Nixon got it half-right. The investigations didn’t end. But one year of Watergate was enough. Facing certain impeachment and removal from office, Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974. 

Bill Clinton didn’t mention impeachment at all during his 1999 SOTU. Instead, Clinton reflected on giving the final address of the twentieth century; a century of discovery, depression, war and revival. Then he said, ”A hundred years from tonight another American president will stand in this place and report on the state of the union, and he — or she — will look back on the twenty-first century shaped in so many ways by the decisions we make here and now.” Clinton and Congress ended the final SOTU of the twentieth century on a high note for the America.

And so it was with this backdrop I set my expectations for 2020. 

Knowing that impeachment hung over the evening, and guessing thatTrump’s words would be both lofty and barbed, I still expected the speech to be bookended by a show of dignity. It wasn’t.

Trump immediately thrust the first foil. Handing his written remarks to the Vice President and the Speaker, and seeing Pelosi’s extended hand, he passed it by. Not by mistake. Intentionally. 

President Trump, Vice President Spence, Speaker Pelosi (Getty images)

Pelosi parried by dispensing with the traditional formal presidential introduction. No high privilege and distinct honor for Trump. Pelosi’s introduction was bitter and terse. Strangers on the street would do better. In fewer than sixty seconds the absence of dignity was obvious.

At the end of the president’s address, with Trump’s breath still warm from saying “God bless America,” Pelosi began ripping up his written speech. Not casually. Deliberately. Meant to be seen. Sure to be noticed.

President Trump, Vice President Spence, Speaker Pelosi ( Alex Brandon, AP)

Why expect Trump to shake Pelosi’s hand? She was the face of impeachment. And knowing full well that Trump was going to be acquitted by the Senate in fewer than twenty-four hours, why expect Pelosi to show Trump any respect?

Because we deserved better. For those ninety minutes the public deserved to be spared political indiscretions. Partisan knocks should have been saved for on-air pundits. Or for off-air living room and barroom brawls. 

Watching Pelosi’s reactions to the braggadocious speech, and seeing Trump’s gallery antics, I was hoping Pelosi would search her memory for her first SOTU as Speaker of the House. 

With the then president’s approval rating on track to hit all-time lows, Nancy Pelosi said she had the “high privilege and distinct honor” of introducing George W. Bush to Congress for his January 23, 2007 SOTU.

Then, beginning his remarks, Bush gave Pelosi an historic introduction.

President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Speaker Pelosi (David Bohrer, White House Photographer)

He said, ”Tonight I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own as the first president to begin the state of the union message with these words. Madam Speaker.”

Pelosi introduced Bush. Bush introduced Pelosi. And they shook hands. Politics aside, dignity carried the evening. Not just dignity. Class.

I wondered what was different now. What changed from 2007 to 2020? 


©Philip Shucet Photography

Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed. Dignity never been photographed…

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