Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Message of Silence

President Obama was the adult in the room last night as he delivered his first State of the Union Address. The speech was, if nothing else, presidential. He accepted responsibility for some of his Administration's failures and chastised Congress for its recent dysfunction. He was the grown up, and there were no immature outbursts from the audience as we saw the last time he appeared before a joint session.

As is tradition, the audience punctuated the speech with repeated standing ovations, for about 17 of which Republicans joined their Democratic colleagues. The State of the Union message is one of very few presidential responsibilities that are specified in the Constitution. That the members of his party frequently stand and applaud the President's words—especially the fighting ones—is an unwritten rule. When those words are about the Country's greatness or the valor of American heroes, the rule applies to Members on both sides of the aisle. Regardless how enthusiastic or how bipartisan the ritual standing and clapping is, it tells us nothing we don't already know.

Any impact of those ovations paled in comparison to the unanimous silence that met the long conclusion of the President's speech. For a full five minutes and fifty seconds Mr. Obama called for government, business, and the press to act with the dignity and demonstrate the values of the American people. And for all that time, the audience was hushed, still, attentive, and perhaps even contemplative. The Members of Congress responded as would a chastised child, listening to a parent's quiet, wise, and reasoned counsel.

It was, for me, an emotional and rhetorically effective few minutes. Several times, Obama paused for four or five poignant seconds to let his words sink in.

Whether his message and plea will have any practical effect on the tone of debate or the progress of legislation in Washington, whether it will turn the opposition from obstructionism to governance, is yet to be seen. I am hopeful, but not optimistic.

But those riveting few minutes of respectful silence spoke very clearly about the nature of leadership, the stature of the President, and the seriousness of the situation in which we find ourselves.

(Listen to the last 5:50 here.)

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