There is that fascinating US ritual, the State of the Union speech where the sitting president comes to Congress to make his report and lay out his plans for the next year. It never changes, it does not matter who is president, who has majority in Congress, it is always a very civilized activity where all who politically matter in the US set aside their differences for one evening to remind the country that there is something bigger than their own career. At any of these events if you could pile high the amount of virtual daggers that these people threw at each other in the past year there would be no room left for the assistance. But tonight Barak Obama is speaking to the nation while an all smiles Hillary Clinton crossed the floor before sitting to listen to HER president. Not to mention that Republican Senators gave a heartfelt standing ovation after the first line of Obama (1).
I do not care much for these speeches anyway. I have watched at least one per president since Reagan. Circumstances and men changed but yet we could always see that essence of US democracy: minimal perhaps but basic respect for the other side. Just for this occasion, and as usual, the parade at the entrance was quite something. For example we saw all the Supreme Court Justices dutifully take their seats, showing their silent respect, and supervision, to the other two powers. Justice Ginsburg fresh from surgery received a warm welcome from both sides.
We also saw the guests coming in, including the hero “du jour” the pilot of the plane who save his passengers and crew by splashing in the Hudson. The US is never afraid to celebrate its heroes perhaps in a corny but always sincere way. And it does not matter who the hero voted for president.
There are always interesting details, such as Secretary of Defense Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, following in line as the “President’s Cabinet” was announced by the usher. True, the guy might be counting the days until he can leave his office, but right now he is all smiles with both sides, fulfilling his civic duty to the best of his ability. The survival reflexes of the US politics is clear in this retention of Gates, as Obama’s administration has to deal first with an economic crisis if it has a chance to finish the wars it inherited without too much disgrace. Both sides agreed that at least for the time being the wars should be run as they were run on election day, with as much bipartisan support as needed. The US holds tight in front of crisis, a characteristic that has always been there, probably etched the hard way because of the Civil War.
The speech has started and on occasion the Republicans join in the applause, even standing up; on other occasions they seat down while euphoric Democrats cheer their man. It is more important than what you think, because Obama good poll numbers so far bring a real risk for the Republicans when they oppose him. But their duty is there, to oppose but approve when possible. They are not afraid, even if reluctant, to show both feelings.
And there is of course the speech itself. What can I say? Articulate? Sincere? Bombastic-less? Hand reaching? When was the last time I heard a well constructed presidential speech in Venezuela without any insult to its adversaries and proposals that actually mean something for all? 10 years ago maybe? More?
Of course, what this US ritual brings to me is how estranged from democracy Venezuela has become, how awful for us the ten years of Chavez rule have been, how long and difficult will be our road to civilian recovery.
The early referendum campaign brought us our version of the state of the union. Chavez used the opportunity to campaign for his single minded obsession, eternal reelection. He held the country hostage, literally, for almost 8 hours. All the chavista high ranking administration was requested to attend the speech. All powers were requested a show of submission, including one of them relinquishing her seat at the podium. All TV and Radio of the country were forced to transmit simultaneously the Chavez rant. For 8 hours all government was mandated to listen, all people not benefiting from cable TV had as their only choice to turn off the radio if they were sickened by the constant hot air. And of course, the opposition was not allowed a right of response to the Chavez speech, not even 5 minutes on state TV and our version of C-span, the infamous ANTV. In fact, if you listen to Chavez words, either that January day or today, the gist of his speeches is that the opposition is almost nonexistent, it is about to disappear and it certainly is not worth rescuing, we will be much better off without any opposition at all, unless one that sucks up to me as much as my PSUV were to appear by miracle.
Still, that opposition scored 45% of the votes two Sundays ago. Chavez even pretended that he would be willing to talk to them (an indirect admission from his part that he acknowledges the descent his numbers even as he still keeps winning). But Chavez conditions were so drastic, so out of order, so delusional that we all got the message: “I am asking you to talk to me so that foreign observers see me asking that, but you all know that our next meeting will take place a cold day in hell. Wait until they are all gone back home and worrying about something else and you will see how I will f**k you further”.
No, no. I am pretty sure that if Chavez were to watch the ceremony tonight he would pity Obama, thinking that he is an asshole, that he is unable to keep his people in line like he, El Supremo, does. Chavez would miss all the democratic content of the moment and see it as a self indulgent civilian bash where a real military like him would not be caught dead. Not for him a Supreme Court that stays quiet, stoic, never applauding a remark he makes. No, for Chavez the ideal country is the one where the High Justices of the Country are on record chanting “Uh! Ah! Chavez no se va”.
1) Technically it is not a State of the Union since there has been a change in president, but for all practical purposes this “address to Congress” works exactly as that ritual speech.