Saturday, February 3, 2007

Speaking in Code

January 29, 2007

by Roger Repohl

THE BRONX, N.Y. - At first I was disappointed that the assembled Congress didn’t react to the President’s State of the Union address last week the way the British Parliament does to the appearances of its Prime Minister: no cheers or jeers, just the traditional polite interruptions of applause and ovations (61 of them this time, reporters calculated, up a notch from last year’s 59 but a far cry from 2001’s 87). But this is America, and America has its civil religion, and civil religion has its rituals, and rituals are always the same. So the call-and-response occurred predictably, liturgically - “up and down, like marionettes,” New York Times columnist Bob Herbert derisively described it.
There was actually something consoling about it: an hour of amity, a respite from reality, like a corrupt priest at Sunday Mass or the black sheep at Thanksgiving dinner. “We always give the President a warm welcome,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi before the event, “as our guest in the chamber.” She’s surely had a few black sheep at Thanksgivings of her own.
And like Thanksgiving dinner, the formality of this ritual never prevents people from communicating their feelings; they just do it in code. “Pass the cranberry” never only means “Pass the cranberry.” The averted eyes, the hunched back, the muted voice all say, “What are you doing here? Why do we go through this every year?”
It was something like that with the speech. The Congress spoke in code: The total actual time of applause was way down from previous years, and most of it went not to ethanol or Iraq but to Nancy Pelosi for being Madam Speaker and New York subway savior Wesley Autrey for being America’s latest Citizen Hero.
The President also spoke in code, his ghostwriters carefully crafting his rhetoric to elicit an ovation even though the actual content demanded stony silence.
Behind the President, framed in the TV screen like deacon and subdeacon, were Vice President Cheney and Speaker Pelosi, both conscious of their visibility to 45.5 million viewers and communicating in their own codes. Cheney sat impassively, deflecting attention to the President, though everyone knows who’s really been deciding for the Decider all these years.
But since it’s hard for 70 percent of the public to look at the President without cringing, the eye instinctively moved to the Speaker. Kate Zernike of The New York Times reported that to prepare for the event, Pelosi’s staff had coached her “to keep a neutral face, warning her that the cameras . . . would capture any raised eyebrow or pursed lip.”
The coaching worked in one respect: She remained resolutely deadpan for most of the 50-minute exercise.
But although she kept her eyebrows down, she couldn’t do the same with her eyelids. Throughout the speech she was blinking maddeningly - a quirk not lost to Letterman and YouTube, and now the latest joke of the blogspot. Was it the lights? Was it her contact lenses? Or was the Speaker speaking in Morse code, offering running commentary?
Though I was fairly good at the code as a boy, I’ve forgotten everything but S-O-S (never know when you’ll need that), so I’ll take a guess at what messages Speaker P (• — — •) may have been sending:
“And tonight I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own as the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madam Speaker.”
• — — •: “Thank you. Stop clenching your teeth.”
“Unemployment is low, inflation is low, wages are rising.”
• — — •: “That’s right, put the good news up front. That’s about all the good news you have, and it isn’t because of you anyway. Now go sign our minimum wage bill.”
“I will submit a budget that eliminates the federal deficit within the next five years.”
• — — •: “Not with your tax cuts it won’t. Read my lids: Some new taxes.”
“With enough good sense and good will, you and I can fix Medicare and Medicaid and save Social Security.”
• — — •: “You mean that’s all it takes?”
“The No Child Left Behind Act has worked for America’s children.”
• — — •: “Except for those it was supposed to reach.”
“I propose a standard tax deduction for health insurance that will be like the standard tax deduction for dependents.”
• — — •: “A tax deduction? Come on. How many will buy health insurance for a few bucks off their taxes? And what about people whose income is so low they don’t pay any taxes? And what you aren’t saying is that you want to make employer-paid insurance taxable income. That’ll go as far as privatized Social Security did.”
“Let us have a serious, civil, and conclusive debate so that you can pass, and I can sign, comprehensive immigration reform into law.”
• — — •: “I will stand up and clap now.”
“For too long our nation has been dependent on foreign oil. And this dependence leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes, and to terrorists.”
• — — •: “This is your reason for an energy policy? Hasn’t Arnold told you what the real enemy is?”
“It’s in our vital interest to diversify American’s energy supply, and the way forward is through technology.”
• — — •: “Oh. Like ‘the way forward’ in Iraq?”
“These technologies will help us be better stewards of the environment, and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change.”
• — — •: “Well, well, well. You finally pronounced those ugly Democrat words.”
“To win the war on terror we must take the fight to the enemy.”
• — — •: “Excuse me, ah, but is a war on terror really a war? And who are the enemy anymore, anyway?”
“America is still a nation at war.”
• — — •: “Funny, it sure doesn’t look like a nation at war, except for our troops. And they’re not fighting a war, they’re trying to stop the Iraqis’ own war.”
“This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in.”
• — — •: “Aren’t you admitting that the war authorization we gave you expired when you declared ‘mission accomplished’ four years ago?”
“The state of our union is strong.”
• — — •: “You finally mention the topic of your speech in your closing paragraph? Don’t you believe it yourself?
“God bless.” • — — •: “A beautiful, universalist sentiment. No ‘America’ this time. I like it, but I’m glad you’re through. My contacts are killing me."

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