I have a confession to make: I love the State of the Union Address. I still own ancient VCR technology and have recorded every address for the past 10 years, and plan on continuing until video cassettes stop existing or I go to sleep in a pine box six feet underground — whichever comes last. I know way more trivia about the speech than any sane human should concern themselves with knowing. (Quick, name this year’s designated successor!) I just have six words to say to the haters: Article II, section three for life.
Most people I talk to think the speech is boring and long, and I accept that many don’t see the SOTU the same way I do. That’s fine — more for me. What’s not to like? There’s the soaring rhetoric and the prestigiousness of the Capitol that uplifts spirits and presents new ideas to move our country forward. There’s the American story, shared before an audience of the most powerful people in the country. And of course, there’s the way 70-year-old congresscritters crowd the President for autographs like Beliebers at a concert featuring Justin in his Calvins.
Yes, I watch the State of the Union for the fancy speech and the policy proposals, but I also watch for the incredibly human (and very entertaining) reactions to it. Who can forget former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s Oscar-winning performance as some sort of rabbit-seal hybrid, clapping with such ferocity that her hands must have fallen off afterward? Veterans of any boring-as-hell lecture will recognize the facial expressions of current Speaker John Boehner, who looks like he’s being forced to sit through an infomercial for quick-dry paint. Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, might be flirting with somebody in the audience? Maybe? That’s the only explanation I can come up with for the actions of that silver fox.
Don’t forget about the audience. Some representatives embrace their inner child and prepare for the sleepover they never had by bringing their own blankets and smartphones and gossiping like Regina from “Mean Girls.” We always hear that politicians are so detached from everyday people, but are they really? Just like students, we both pretend like we missed that lecture when the professor says not to use our phones. Or we actually did miss that lecture. Same difference.
What if the State of the Union’s finished, but your bowl of popcorn still needs emptying? That’s what the responses to the State of the Union are for. The best-of playlist includes Representative Michele Bachmann staring into the soul of whoever’s over your left shoulder. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal must be a big “30 Rock” fan, because his response gave him the perfect opportunity to do his best Kenneth the Page impersonation. And poor Senator Ted Cruz! He only gets about 40 seconds into his speech before realizing that he forgot his notes at home, uttering a meme-tastic, “Meh, lemme start over.” Maybe he realized it was a bad idea to film an official response with all the sound and video quality of “The Blair Witch Project.”
So while I may enjoy the actual address itself, I derive the most pleasure from the very human reactions, emotions and even mistakes that occur at the same time. I would be lying to say that there’s no schadenfreude involved — the imp inside of me cackles a little louder for every flub — but the State of the Union address does much more than that. Between the blankets, winks, claps, scowls, bored faces and pointer fingers, it reminds us that the humans we choose as our politicians and policymakers are precisely that: human.
It is all too easy to forget. We learn in elementary school about the history of the United States, the capital-F Founding Fathers and the sacredness of our governmental institutions. To a certain extent, it’s all true and worthy of reverence. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were incredibly brave to stand up to the most powerful empire in the world at the time. The British controlled land from India to Canada, Africa to Australia. The United States was outpaced in soldiers, outnumbered in money, outclassed in industry. By most measures, the United States even existing doesn’t make a lick of sense. Yet here we are.
So we lionize the Founding Fathers as wise and courageous. We dedicate monuments in their honor, hew their faces from mountains and etch into our minds the important deeds they accomplished. We don’t just remember them — we venerate them. We cower in the shadows of these towering figures of history. We convince ourselves that it is not possible for us to succeed where they didn’t, or make change when they couldn’t.
This is wrong. They are not gods. They are not myths, legends, deities, demigods, mini-gods or half-gods. They are as close to divinity as Charlie Sheen is to sanity. They are entirely human, with all the triumphs, foibles and evils that being human entails. And despite the hurdles and objections, the moral quandaries and inner struggles, they still accomplish great things that only humans can do. No heavenly being descended from the skies above to write our constitution. Humans did that.
You, too, are human. You, too, have the ability to fight for equality, lead the charge for environmental sustainability, push for an end to income inequality, encourage small businesses to grow, support charitable giving and give a helping hand to those who need it. None of the work of our historical figures could have been accomplished alone. They had the support of countless people — countless humans — behind them. Without that guidance, assistance and aid of humans, by humans, for humans, none of the grand deeds that we remember today would have happened.
“We don’t just want everyone to share in American success, we want everyone to contribute to our success,” President Obama declared in the State of the Union. That is the fundamental story of humanity — working together, all of us overcoming the obstacles and contributing toward a better future.
So dust yourself off and grab your bottle of water. We have work to do.