Here is what I saw watching President Trump delivering the SOTU in person.
The Golden Ticket
It was the hottest ticket in Washington D.C. last night, few and far between. No plus ones, no gate crashers. No ticket, no admittance. And the Secret Service isn’t exactly known for being lax about security.
I was one of the few lucky enough to get a ticket.
I went early, taking my place in the upper visitor’s gallery. From it, there was an excellent view of the congressional floor and the podium from which Trump would soon make his SOTU speech.
My fellow visitors and I watched from our vantage point as U.S. Senators, Congressmen and Congresswomen, military brass and supreme court justices all found their places, glad-handing and greeting friends and colleagues along the way.
Some spoke urgently in tight-knit groups; some laughed and seemed perfectly at ease. All were there to hear President Trump’s opinion on the State of the Union, whether they wanted to or not.
As we waited in the chamber, the enormous room began to positively buzz with excited conversation. Everyone in the visitors gallery seemed to be asking the same few questions:
What would the President say? What would newly elected Democrats do? Would someone make a scene?
Would congressional leaders and the American public be getting Teleprompter Trump or Twitter Trump? Some last night were, no doubt, hoping for the polished and Presidential Donald Trump of his address of the nation a few weeks ago. Others were definitely hoping it would be the one taking too much ‘executive time’ to play celebrity feud on Twitter.
Would Trump turn it into a MAGA rally, or play for the middle ground?
The middle ground seemed to have the best odds: Democrats seem intent on losing it this week, descending into the madness of 90% tax rates, no more private health insurance, and babies terminated after birth.
Would any Democrats, especially the newly elected, be keen to try to embarrass the President (and themselves) by making a big scene?
The idea that someone might storm the podium, or stand up and yell “You lie!” during a critical moment in the President’s speech, the way Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) memorably did when President Obama was speaking on the House floor in 2009, was floated more than once.
The press may not have treated Wilson kindly, but fundraising after that little incident certainly did.
There was also a bit of an angry buzz in the room. It was, after all, filled with people who didn’t want to be there: People who disagree with the President about matters of policy and some who outright hate him; military brass who didn’t seem terribly happy when Trump talked about troop drawn-downs and the end of the wars without end as we have come to know them.
Who can blame the brass? They are soldiers and warriors to a man. When you are a hammer, everything is a nail.
The congressional chamber was also increasingly filled with women sitting together, all wearing white for reasons that were never made clear to the audience, though I learned later the white was a nod to female suffragettes.
Which is interesting, because I thought early suffragettes were officially thrown out the Democratic party posthumously in 2018. After all, early white suffragettes did in fact use racist tactics to achieve the vote for white women, promising white male voters that white women would stand shoulder to shoulder against the male African-American vote.
Interesting, too, that the women in the party claiming to want equality for women were all cloistered tightly together, as if for support, wearing the same color. While on the other hand, women in the party constantly accused of not treating women as equals were scattered throughout the Republican side, right alongside their male counterparts and dressed as individuals are wont to do.
That is, to dress without coordinating with one’s colleagues.
One side looked like it belonged there and knew it; but the other side was indeed bigger.
At least a few Democratic women were unwilling to participate; Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Elizabeth Warren being two notables. Both, no doubt, abstained for reasons of their own.
However, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) didn’t seem to able to control herself. Her body language, and, I later learned, facial expressions, making it clear what she thought about the President’s speech. Is Harris really ready for the campaign trail? It is going to be brutal out there in 2020. She is going to need a better poker face than that.
This nation is half Republican. How is she going to handle a town-hall in Iowa, where Republican folks might ask her questions she doesn’t like much?
If you’ve ever had to listen to a colleague (or boss) present the stupidest idea in human history, then look them dead in the eyes and say, with a perfectly strait face, “that’s an idea,” you understand the scope of Senator Harris’s problem.
My good friend Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is having a great deal of fundraising success and a surge in online popularity since her million-dollar eye roll in response to one of the President’s remarks. Though, she too, will likely find a great deal objectionable on the campaign trail and can’t afford to be seen as too reactive.
If newly elected Democrats want to see how to comport themselves when a colleague you don’t like very much is giving a presentation, they should watch every video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the SOTU.
Even sitting next to Vice President Mike Pence, listening to a man she has worked to undermine since the day he took office, a man with much less political experience who is infinitely less qualified to be President than she herself, Pelosi’s stoicism was almost unshakable.
The people watching was unparalleled and the SOTU speech itself was a good one, though it did go a little Lee Greenwood near the end.
The President touted his accomplishments, like the FIRST STEP Act, steps taken to lower the costs of prescription drugs and health care, and the new North American trade deal. He also laid out his goals for the next two years; the border wall, no more wars and better trade with China, just to name a few.
The President even managed, after a fashion, to illicit a few genuine laughs from what was most certainly a tough crowd. There were also a fair few tears, as the SOTU speech came back full circle to remind Americans of the sacrifices American soldiers made on D-Day 1944 and the concentration camp survivors that were liberated as a result.
Perhaps Trump was reminding everyone who needs reminding where communism and fascism have gotten humanity in the past. Reminding us that the U.S. was, and must remain, the light of the world and a fountain of human progress. Not perfect, but working.
President Trump ended by leaving the ball in the Democrat’s court. It is up to the Democratic Party now to demonstrate a willingness to work together; not because they like him, but for the sake of the nation.
On the way out, the President signed ties and shook hands, so mobbed by a crowd of well-wishers and congratulators he could barely be seen from the visitors section.
It wasn’t exactly the bread and circuses promised in Ancient Rome, but it wasn’t that different either: Those of us in the upper gallery were definitely entertained.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)