Posted by Curt on 5 February, 2020 at 8:50 am. 7 comments already!


The House of Representatives has had its share of infamies, great and small, real and symbolic, and has been the scene of personal infamies from brawls to canings. However, the conduct of Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the State of the Union address this week will go down as a day of infamy for the chamber as an institution. While it has long been a tradition for House speakers to remain stoic and neutral in listening to the address, Pelosi seemed intent on mocking President Trump from behind his back with sophomoric facial grimaces and head shaking, culminating in her ripping up a copy of his address.

Her drop the mic moment will have a lasting impact on the House. While many will celebrate her trolling of the president, she tore up something far more important than a speech. She shredded decades of tradition, decorum, and civility that we need now more than ever. The House speaker is more than a political partisan, particularly when carrying out functions such as the State of the Union address. A president appears in the House as a guest of both chambers of Congress. The House speaker represents not her party or herself but the entirety of the chamber. At that moment, she transcends her political ambitions and loyalties.

Tensions for this address were high. Democrats had the House impeachment managers sit as a group in front of the president as a reminder of the ongoing impeachment trial. That can be excused as a silent but pointed message from the House. Moreover, Trump hardly covered himself with glory by not shaking hands with Pelosi. I also strongly disliked elements of his address which bordered on “check under your seat” moments, or the awarding of conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the House gallery like a Mardi Gras bead toss. However, if Trump made the State of the Union look like Oprah, Pelosi made it look like Jerry Springer.

What followed was an utter disgrace. First, Pelosi dropped the traditional greeting at the start of the address, not saying, “Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States.” Instead, Pelosi simply announced, “Members of Congress, the president of the United States.” It was petty and profoundly inappropriate. Putting aside the fact that this is not her tradition, but that of the House, it is no excuse to note that the president was impeached.

Such an indignity was not imposed on President Clinton during his impeachment proceeding, and anyone respecting due process would note that Trump has been accused, not convicted, at this point in the constitutional process. Pelosi proceeded to shake her head, mouth words to others, and visibly disagree with the address. It was like some distempered and distracting performance art behind the president.

My revulsion over this scene has nothing to do with impeachment. Indeed, six years ago, I wrote a column denouncing Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito for mouthing the words “not true” when President Obama used his address to criticize the court for its decision in the Citizens United case. I considered his response to be a disgrace and later wrote a column criticizing Chief Justice John Roberts for not publicly chastising Alito for such a breach of tradition. Instead, Roberts seemed to defend Alito in criticizing Obama for his “very troubling” language and saying it was unfair to criticize the court when justices, “according to the requirements of protocol,” have “to sit there expressionless.” It is not unfair. It is being judicious.

I also wrote a column denouncing Republican Representative Joe Wilson who, during the 2009 address by Obama, shouted “you lie!” at the president. In my view, Wilson should have been severely sanctioned for that breach. When I wrote those columns, I never imagined that a House speaker would engage in conduct far in excess of those controversies. After all, speakers often have been required to sit through addresses that they despised from presidents of the opposing party.

However, the House speaker is third in line of succession to the presidency and the representative of the House as a whole. She is not some Sinead O’Connor ripping up a photograph of the pope on “Saturday Night Live” while shouting “Fight the real enemy.” Pelosi, like her predecessors, is supposed to remain stone-faced even when presidents have left them personally enraged. Indeed, House speakers have been the authority who kept other members in silent deference and respect, if not to the president, then to the office. On this occasion, Pelosi seemed to goad the mob, like a high schooler making mad little faces behind the school principal at assembly. It worked: Members actively protested and interrupted the president. At that moment, Pelosi became just another Democratic leader, little more than a twitching embodiment of our “age of rage.”

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