Symbolism in America
While many countries unite behind symbolic references to their nations, no people are quite as motivated by symbolism as Americans.
Since the beginning of our nation, symbols representing our ideals permeate our lives. From the stories about ringing the Liberty Bell in 1776 as soon to be revolutionaries read the Declaration of Independence, to the words in the national anthem celebrating the flag still waving over Fort McHenry as British ships bombarded Baltimore in the War of 1812, symbolism has been an integral part of our country’s fabric.
This appreciation is often simple and poignant reminders of the many sacrifices our ancestors have made to ensure our freedom. They fill the halls of the Smithsonian and other national museums. Pictures and paintings like Betsy Ross sewing one of the first American flags, destitute people lined up for food in the Great Depression, the brave soldiers planting the flag on Iwo Jima, the draped coffin of President Kennedy passing his saluting son, John, and Neil Armstrong taking the first step on the moon. The list goes on and on.
One of the most revered and honored symbols of our nation is the Presidency and the respect for which the office deserves regardless of partisan politics or the person who occupies the office. While it is the right, indeed perhaps the duty, of every citizen, politician and media pundit who disagrees with the President to voice their views, there are certain times when it is wholly inappropriate and disrespectful not of the person but of the office itself. That is inexcusable and unacceptable.
We saw a glaring example of such disrespect on Tuesday at the conclusion of the President’s State of the Union address. When Speaker Nancy Pelosi tore up the President’s speech for the world to see, she went over the line. She symbolically tore up the message behind everything President Trump said, including honoring our fallen heroes and celebrating new opportunities for Americans to follow their dreams. She literally destroyed a historical document that belongs in a museum, not a trash can. Please do not defend her disrespect because there are other copies of the speech. She tore up the copy passed from the President of the United States to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, as has been a tradition for as long as most of us have been alive. It’s not just any copy. That makes a difference.
Some might defend her stunt as a statement targeting President Trump and the deep differences she has with him, both political and personal. Such a defense is sophomoric. She more than adequately insulted him by dropping the traditional introduction about honor and privilege, just as the President let his feelings known by not extending his hand for a handshake. Those rebukes of one another, as childish as they may have been, were directed at the individual, not the office or the ideals and dreams of America and Americans that were celebrated in the speech.
The State of the Union address is steeped in tradition. More importantly, it is mandated in the Constitution. Article II, Section 3, Clause 1 of the Constitution calls for the President to periodically “give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” While the Constitution does not require the President to make a speech (it can be a written report), with few exceptions a speech has been the tradition since Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 State of the Union address.
While the Constitution calls for a report, it is not the right of the President to make a speech before a joint session of Congress. Indeed, to this day, the President can only do so upon invitation from the House in whose chambers he delivers the speech.
The process is also steeped in protocol established over decades of history.
By tradition, each member of Congress is permitted one guest and the President can invite up to 24 guests to accompany the First Lady. The Speaker of the House is also allowed to invite 24 guests.
As the annual tradition unfolds, the Deputy Sergeant at Arms of the House addresses the Speaker and announces the arrival of the Vice President and members of the Senate, who enter and take the seats assigned to them. The Vice President sits at the podium beside the Speaker. The Speaker, and then the Vice President, specify the members of the House and Senate who will escort the President into the chamber upon his arrival. The Deputy Sergeant at Arms then addresses the Speaker again and announces, in order, the arrival of the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, the Chief Justice of the United States, the Associate Justices, and the Cabinet, each of whom enters and takes their seats. While this order has on occasion been changed, such formalities are always a part of the event but rarely covered by the media.
Meanwhile, the Sergeant at Arms of the House, traditionally on the left of the entrance door to the chamber, waits with the Sergeant at Arms of the Senate (to his or her right). When the President arrives, the Sergeant at Arms of the House enters and announces, “Madam [or Mister] Speaker, the President of the United States.” The President then enters the chamber.
After handshakes, kisses and hugs as he walks down the aisle, the President makes his way to the podium and hands an envelope to the Vice President and the Speaker, each containing an official copy of his speech. He then turns to those gathered in the chamber and begins his address.
The copies of the speech are as historical as any other symbol of our nation and democracy. Every official copy is part of our history. When Speaker Pelosi chose to tear it up as a gesture of disrespect, she symbolically tore up every ideal contained in it. Unlike a snubbed handshake or a disrespectful introduction, destroying the official copy was reprehensible. While she will never do so, she owes all Americans an apology. In my heart, I would like to think her inexcusable behavior was in the heat of the moment, but something tells me she planned it all along. Shame on you, Madam Speaker.