Ever since I can remember being old enough to have the slightest interest in government and politics, the State of the Union address has been one of those moments in the national timeline I felt obligated to watch. It is like election night or the inauguration of a new president; good Americans are just supposed to watch it.
Tradition outlines that every year in January, the President has his opportunity to update the Congress on the state of our union. Since the advent of broadcasting, this means he is also updating all Americans, as well as the world.
The House chambers fill with pomp and circumstance during a joint session of Congress. Everyone is there, save the few individuals from each branch that are tapped to remain in an undisclosed location in case a bomb drops on the building or something.
What follows, in my opinion, has historically been, well, underwhelming to say the least. The Commander and Chief typically spends the next 45 minutes to an hour defending himself. He points out all the great strides that have been made in the last year, which are usually specific bills he has signed into law. Then he tackles the “obstacles” looming over our nation in the coming year, which is usually a veiled attack on the opposing party. Periodically, political jargon is thrown in with which both parties are allowed to agree, and they are met with standing ovations. If I stand in the majority on this issue, and I believe I do, the State of the Union address seems to do little more than leave most Americans jaded about a political process that appears to be ailing at best.
Yet, this year was different for me.
I witnessed the state of our union in a new light. Like many other national milestones this past year, I spent this one sitting on foreign soil. I can assure you the view is different from over here.
Instead of gazing into the House chambers from my sofa, hovering over a bowl of nachos with a handful of friends, I was in an airport terminal, a tiny airport in the middle of West Africa. It was 2:30 in the morning and there were less than a hundred people in the airport.
The events that took place over the next hour taught me a valuable lesson.
Tired and frustrated, the whole of the terminal was waiting on a single plane to arrive. It was the only flight that night. Some of us had been there for hours. People were trying to sprawl out across multiple seats and sleep. Others were pacing impatiently around the room. Others still would adjust in their seats only to readjust after a few minutes in an endless attempt to get comfortable.
Without any warning, the two television screens cut on, and they were switched to CNN (this country actually had access to CNN). To be honest, I had completely forgotten what day it was and had no clue it was time for the President’s address.
The new development in the room was slowly realized by its group of captives, and a change took place. People began to move. Seats next to the two televisions began to fill up. At first, I chalked it up to boredom and an added stimulus, but quickly the realization set in that I was wrong. These people would far rather be trying to sleep than watch TV. It was not the television itself that drew their attention, it was the content of the screen.
The people stared up into the screen as President Obama stared back at them. A crowd gathered to watch as this man spoke to the masses. Russian businessmen and Lebanese merchants, Spanish footballers and West African families, Chinese tourists and an overly romantic French couple all glued their attention to this moment in history.
It was the following realization that sat heavy on me. I was the only American in the room. I looked to make sure my eyes were not deceiving me, but I was certain it was the case. No one else in that room called the United States home. No one else in that room received its public education or paid its income taxes. No one else in that room had any say in who was on that screen. I was the only person there who’s opinion had mattered when it came to choosing who they would be listening to on that night.
Yet there they sat, listening intently to what he had to say. They were people honestly concerned with his words and wondering what direction he was going to deliver. President Obama did not simply speak to Congress that night. He did not just speak to the American people. His words rang out across the world, and the world was actually listening.
Obama had many things to say that night. Much of what he said I actually liked, especially the way he said it. He strayed some from the formula, using this moment in time to deliver words meant to motivate a people instead of explaining his actions for the past year.
Sure, some of it was wasted political jargon. Truly, his motives were not completely altruistic, and it appears the man may be using the means of inspiration as a security net for his political career instead of articulating an actual platform (it has worked for him so far). Every move the man made during his address was designed to create the appearance of a monumental point of inspiration in the country’s history. Watch it again; from his vocabulary to his posture, he was imitating Kennedy.
But maybe that is what the country needs right now. Perhaps a good dose of inspiration and reflection would remind our country of the real state of the Union.
Whatever the case, the lesson I learned early Wednesday morning came not from the screen, but the room full of spectators. If I had watched that speech with my regular cronies, I would have spent the evening dissecting Obama’s words and squabbling over education, healthcare, and taxes. Instead, I was given a gift. I witnessed the real state of our union. It is a country most blessed. It is a country that the world cares about, and when our president speaks, his words effect the world for better or worse. Our decisions as a country ripple across the world in a way that no other nation matches.
Nations come and go. Just ask Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Adolph Hitler. America will not stand forever, at least if my Bible is telling the truth. So please, do not put your ultimate hopes and trust in a country. But for such as time as this, we have a most precious platform. May we as a country consider well how we use it.