President Obama gave his State of the Union speech last night, and it was a great speech. But for any serious people watcher, at least half the game was watching Speaker of the House John Boehner, sitting right behind the president.
Let me preface by saying that Congressman John Boehner is from my home state, the Great State of Ohio. I’m guess I’m not that much of an Ohioan anymore, having lived in Massachusetts for far longer than the years I spent growing up in Ohio. But still. You can take the boy out of Ohio, but you can’t (entirely) take Ohio out of the boy.
And so it made me wince to see Ohio’s most powerful member of Congress look like he’d eaten a bad Brazil nut for a solid hour, while listening to the president’s State of the Union address. Okay, sure, Boehner doesn’t agree with all of Obama’s policies. Hell, I don’t agree with all of Obama’s policies. (What’s up with the drone strikes, Mr. President? And why, after the Gulf oil disaster, are you so eager to fast-track oil exploration?) But most of what he said was, in my opinion, good common Midwestern sense, mixed with a healthy dose of much-needed inspiration.
So why did our most prominent Republican look as if he were receiving an hour-long prostate exam? Was it the bitterness of a vanquished foe? Or was it just a visible symptom of our still deeply divided country?
One of the many things I liked about the speech was the stories that Obama wove into it. I like stories. They humanize discussions that can otherwise become abstract and cold, and turn into endless confrontation between entrenched positions. Stories move us, and help us listen to each other. Who could fail to be moved to grief by the story of the young woman who, one week, was participating in the Presidential Inauguration, and the next, was struck down by gunfire near her home in Chicago? Or heartened by the cop who took twelve bullets while performing his job, and lived to inspire others? We can’t make national decisions based just on stories. We need hard facts to help us decide what to do about global climate change, for example. But stories have their place. Sometimes they can soften a hardened heart, and help us pay attention to what the other is saying. They might not change our minds. But they help us listen.
And listening is something we need a lot more of in American political life today.