On Tuesday, I had the distinct honor of accompanying my wife, who also happens to be my new congresswoman, to President Biden’s State of the Union address. Congressman Jason Crow, an Army Ranger, brought Richard Fierro, himself an Army veteran and Colorado Springs beer magnate who heroically stopped the anti-LGBTQ hate-fueled shooting spree at Club Q last November. Rep. Joe Neguse brought Ellen Mahoney, who lost her husband Kevin in yet another numbingly routine mass shooting in Colorado in 2021. Even Rep. Lauren Boebert had the good sense to bring luminous Colorado Mesa University President John Marshall as her guest for the evening. I, whom the Colorado Sun described as a “political consultant,” felt pretty underqualified to be sitting alongside these Colorado heroes.
At least I was in good company. Sen. John Hickenlooper brought his wife (and brand new mom!!!) Robin Pringle. Congressman Doug Lamborn too brought his wife Jeanie.
Congressman Ken Buck didn’t reveal the identity of his guest, but I did end up in an elevator with one of his staffers schlepping around a cart of his apparently newly published book, about “big tech’s crusade of censorship and violations of free speech,” (her words) on my way out of the Longworth Office Building to get dressed for the big show.
Next year I expect to be relegated to Brittany’s office with her (wildly competent, utterly charming, intellectually intimidating, and intensely qualified) staff, playing Biden Bingo (Bidingo? Nah?) or throwing back a drink every time the president says “dollars,” which must have been the most frequently uttered word during his speech.
Congressman Jeff Jackson of North Carolina’s very funny and incredibly nice wife, Marisa (“one R one S”) sat right behind me in Gallery 11, which, for the uninitiated, is just about the worst seat in the House. It’s behind the Speaker’s podium with no view of the chamber’s presiding officer at all, and with near perfect view of the camera crews and the GOP side of the aisle who were playing their own game, one in which absolutely everyone lost, especially those of us who weren’t playing.
At least I wasn’t the poor bastard whose seating assignment was literally “stairs” and who, when inquiring about where his seat “really was,” was told by a sergeant at arms that, indeed, his seat was “on the steps between the actual seating rows.”
I wonder who the fire marshall in charge of the House Gallery is.
Ms. Jackson asked me why we got such crummy seats. I turned around and calculated, “Well, we’re the spouses of freshmen members of the minority party, so I’m not sure there are too many folks lower on McCarthy’s Hierarchy of Plebes than you and I.”
We did, however, have a terrific view of the President’s box, specifically of his guests, including Dr. Jill Biden herself, U2’s Bono, and Paul Pelosi, perhaps the highest-ranking-and-most-recent-victim-of-a-violent-conspiracy-theory-motivated-assassination-attempt-who-is-also-a-congressional-spouse in the whole gallery. Perhaps even in the whole District of Columbia.
Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Outer Space) seemed to attract the attention she desired, dressing up like the recently-shot-down-but-apparently-not-quickly-enough-Chinese-spy-balloon-cosplaying-as-Cruella-DeVille-for-a-mid-sized-midwestern-comicon, interjecting more loudly and more often than any other member of the Chaos Caucus. Her outbursts prompted the gentleman sitting next to me, an Afghani military translator who had a hit scheduled on Fox News shortly after the speech, to shift uncomfortably in his seat and mutter what I absolutely must have completely misheard as “what the fuck?”
Congresswoman Anna Paulina Luna (R-Florida), with whom I have had several brief but pleasant interactions, was dressed in a three-piece suit with a blazing red tie. This outfit would apparently be illegal in Arkansas under a currently proposed anti-drag-queen law under consideration in that state’s Legislature, because we live in truly the dumbest possible timeline.
I digress. The president’s speech was fantastic. I couldn’t believe I got to be in that room in that building in that city in this country while he delivered it. President Biden is not widely known for his rhetorical dazzle, nor his speedy rejoinders, but, in spite of a few likely-speech-impediment-induced stammers, he delivered a clear and accomplishment-heavy treatise on the state of our union, replete with a number of incredibly moving but wildly painful stories that even Mitch McConnell stood in applause for.
The president even somehow got the entire Republican Party to checkmate themselves into completely preserving Medicare and Social Security, while the Morning Zoo Caucus heckled him for repeating the very very demonstrable fact that some of them, even generously conceding that it wasn’t all or even a majority of Republicans, called for the curtailing of both, including the very very widely known fact that many of them planned on taking the popular programs hostage during negotiations over the debt limit. If my view of Speaker McCarthy weren’t obstructed at that moment, I imagine what little color was in his face to begin with must have drained out entirely.
Because of my bad seats, I was actually able to perfectly see each and every person whose moving stories the president relayed, and quite frankly, I completely lost it several times during this section. He introduced the parents of yet another Black man recently murdered by police officers, Tyre Nichols. The morning after the speech, Memphis Police Department documents revealed that one of the officers sent photos of the brutal assault on Mr. Nichols to no fewer than five others, at least one of whom was not with the department, an act so sick and heinous on top of an act so inexcusable and deplorable that I gasped out loud when I read it.
Tyre’s folks were the Platonic form of the quiet, exhausted rage that only the unjust and senseless theft of a child’s life can produce. I thought about my own three-year-old son as the president admitted that he never had to have “the talk” with any of his kids, and that I too never have and never would have to either. He quoted Tyre’s mother, Ms. Nichols that “something good must come from this.” The president said that inasmuch as everyone who puts on the badge and the uniform deserves to come home at the end of every night, so does everyone else – a threading of a very difficult political and social needle that I thought most simply and incredibly cleared the smoke produced by so much intellectual and moral dishonesty by so many charlatans more quickly than anyone else ever has.
He pointed out another couple, an Irishman and a daughter of Panamanian immigrants whose one-year-old was diagnosed with horrific kidney cancer, but because of the miracle of modern medicine and some incredible luck just turned four years old. I wailed, thinking about how lucky my family is to have an incredibly healthy baby boy whose worst health experience in his three years of life so far was pretty gnarly-sounding croup and a full-body amoxicillin reaction.
And he told the story of a 20-year-old woman who was transitively murdered by utterly soulless fentanyl producers and dealers, for whom I sincerely hope there is an infinite and ever-immolating hell, and whose parents too turned that tragedy into action. This was the part of the speech where the Worst People In The Room just could no longer help themselves and broke decorum worse than any group of people who have ever held once-esteemed positions ever have.
I wanted to scream “JUMANJI!” to stop these animals from tearing apart the House.
Much above a whisper mutters of “secure the border,” inexplicably gained chorus while the president was literally asking Congress for resources to secure the border. One fucking monster even shouted “IT’S YOUR FAULT!” as the president was openly and publicly mourning the loss of this young woman directly to her parents. It took every molecule of restraint, which I am not particularly famous for, not to scream at the top of my lungs, “SHUTTHEFUCKUPHOWFUCKINGDAREYOU!”
I cannot for the life of me fathom how one’s personal need for attention, infamy, and performance could bring them to the utterly inhumane place of interrupting a wake for the sole purpose of getting a C-SPAN camera trained on them. If there ever was a more loathsome or pathetic action taken in public by another human being in the history of the universe I am unaware of it.
But this is where we are. At least the pocket change of the realm in politics has always been attention, but the line between positive and negative attention has now evaporated into a partisan distortion field where negative attention from your political opponents is equivalent or of even greater value than positive attention from your supporters.
I’m a person who spent much of my career saying horrible things about terrible people, but, scout’s honor, it was always to put the goddamn spotlight on them in hopes that their shame and humiliation would cow them into thinking about their words and actions, and perhaps even get them to consider behaving less horribly in the future. It was never to get my own name in the frothing mouths and frustrated brains of those who I would criticize and ridicule.
I’m sure you could argue with a very straight face and thousands of pieces of evidence that I contributed more than my share of poison to the well of public discourse. But for fuck’s sake, I would never consider in my even most righteously indignant moments interrupting the grief of the parents of even the lowest beings on the planet, including any member of the House Republican Caucus, to make a political point or to get people tweeting about me.
And yet, here I am, almost 2,000 words into a screed that is partly giving these exact cretins the exact thing they are absolutely begging for: notoriety, attention and more and more words about them posted on the internet. But what choice do I have? It’s a perfect death spiral, if the only thing you care about is attention, and you don’t care what form it comes in or who it comes from, then you’re always going to win. There is no accountability in a culture in which there is no shame.
We as a society used to be able to collectively decide that freaks like George Wallace or Steve King were behaving unacceptably and lock arms to put them out to political pasture. That’s no longer possible in a world where all attention is good even and especially when it’s not, and where the only thing reporters, voters, politicians, donors, activists, and all but the most idealistic and naive policy wonks care about is how many electrons are moving their name and face through the tragic kingdom of our overconnected universe.
All this doom, and yet, I’ve never been more proud to be an American, a Democrat, and especially a congressional spouse. I got to see my wife thank the president of the United States to his face for talking about the fentanyl-laced-opioid-epidemic on one of the largest platforms a human being has ever had in the history of the world.
Yes, that’s still about attention, but attention can still be wielded as a torchlight for good instead of a spotlight for horrible, and Joe Biden proved it on Tuesday. I still can’t believe they let me anywhere near that building or that they let me sit in that room for that speech, but I am incredibly grateful for the innumerable surreal experiences that I’ve been afforded because my wife is the single most talented, hard-working, and deserving person I’ve ever met and that the one bad choice she ever made was marrying me.
It was truly an honor to attend the State of the Union adress.
Ian Silverii is the founder of The Bighorn Company, a progressive political consulting firm, and the former director of ProgressNow Colorado. His wife is U.S. Rep. Brittany Pettersen (D-CO).