People as Political Props: the Real State of the Union

January 26, 2011 Michael Kaufman

There are a lot of strange things we now take for granted.  On Tuesday night, I watched President Obama’s State of the Union address.  From time-to-time he would illustrate a point by telling a short, heart-warming story about someone or other.  Each time he did, the camera would dutifully shift to an person in the audience who you knew was the remarkable or ordinary man or woman he was talking about.  A man with brain disease, a middle-aged woman who’d gone back to school, a couple of soldiers, and a host of others all became political props.

Telling the heart-warming personal story was a technique perfected by Ronald Reagan during his role as president back in the 1980s.  But I don’t recall they’d yet turned state events into the equivalent of an Oprah taping. Now, we take it for granted.  It’s become ritual in political speeches, at least in the United States, and a more intrepid watcher probably could have timed the arrival of the next heart-warming story.

Why should this bother me?  After all, as a writer and public speaker, I too tell stories; I value the ability to communicate complex ideas through characters and events.  But, when it comes to these political props, I bristle at the sheer corniness.  It’s all about manufacturing quick hits of emotion and, in this ritual, the only emotions worth conjuring up are either sentimentality or patriotism.  I’d like Obama to bring out a row of child prisoners and hear the president howl in outrage that the US is the only country in the world where children are condemned to life in prison.  (Only the US and Somalia have refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which rules out such things.)   I’d like him to tell the story of a homeless man and woman sitting up in the balcony and say to his nation, how can we live with this shame that one of the richest countries in the world has people living without a roof over their heads?  And I’d like him to tell the stories not only of the worthy individuals destined for the talk show circuit, but of the community groups and the social movements that work with few resources and against incredible odds to challenge the destruction of the environment and climate change, who fight for human rights, who provide services for battered women, who organize the most disadvantaged, who work tirelessly against racism, and who struggle to end wars.   How’s that for some heart-warming stories?