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Pompousness and Circumstance

By Dana Milbank
Friday, January 9, 2009

You might want to be sitting down before reading the next sentence.

Ready? Okay, here goes: Barack Obama was elected president of the United States yesterday.

Astute readers may have a recollection that this is old news, that Obama was elected on Nov. 4 and declared the winner that night by the likes of Brian Williams, Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric. But, as Al Gore can tell you, the popular vote gets you only so far -- and Obama's win wasn't official until 1:35 p.m. yesterday, when Vice President Cheney, presiding over a joint session of Congress on the House floor, read out the final tally of the electoral college.

It was done according to the ancient traditions: the mahogany boxes holding the state electoral certificates; the procession from the Senate to the House; the opening of the envelopes with silver knives; and the check-off of each state's results with a pencil on a tally sheet. Surrounded by such history, the lawmakers behaved themselves according to the current fashion: badly.

"Barack Obama of the state of Illinois has received for president of the United States 365 votes," Cheney announced to the silent chamber at the climactic moment, also reading out the tallies for John McCain, Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. "This announcement of the state of the vote by the president of the Senate shall be deemed a sufficient declaration of the persons elected president and vice president of the United States."

The lawmakers rose to applaud. But in the front row, Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the Republican leader of the Senate, remained planted. Gradually, he lumbered to his feet. While the others clapped, he buttoned his suit jacket -- slowly. They were still applauding when he finished that task, so he buried his hands in his pockets. Then he sat down.

There's nothing quite like public petulance by our leaders to make the current age seem small. And McConnell had company in his bad manners. McCain, the vanquished Republican presidential nominee, skipped the ceremony entirely, along with two-thirds of the Senate. On the Republican side of the aisle, 41 seats were empty.

Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.), one of four lawmakers selected to read out the results, repeatedly insisted on referring to Obama's home state as IlliNOISE. When he got to Ohio, which had a particularly large electoral certificate, he called out, in his South Philly accent: "Big One!" and "Whoa!"

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D), given the honor of reading out his state's results, used the moment to play booster for "the great state of New York." Brady matched that by reading the results for his state, "another great commonwealth of Pennsylvania."

By the time they worked through the alphabet to the state of Sen. Robert Bennett, the Republican had little choice but to hail, Chamber of Commerce-style, the "rapidly growing state of Utah."

It's hard to know what Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and William Jennings Bryan would have made of this, but their stone likenesses, and the statues of other giants who once walked these halls, looked down on the procession as it made its way through Statuary Hall at the stroke of 1 p.m. yesterday.

"Today, we will have history in the House of Representatives again when we have the electoral college vote tallied," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in vibrant lavender, reminded reporters just before the procession. "Pretty exciting."

Pelosi strolled through Statuary Hall, followed by Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), the Ways and Means Committee chairman in an ethics imbroglio, who flashed a thumbs-up for the cameras. Soon came the congressional pages carrying the mahogany boxes, the small contingent of senators, and the vice presidential military aides toting ominous black bags.

Cheney, who recently told CBS Radio that he considers himself a "warm, lovable sort," opened the ceremony: "Pursuant to the Constitution and laws of the United States, the Senate and House of Representatives are meeting in joint session to verify the certificates and count the votes of the electors of the several states for president and vice president of the United States."

The early count looked good for McCain, but only because it was being done alphabetically, from Alabama to Alaska to Arizona to Arkansas. But then Rep. Dan Lungren (R) read out what for him were the unhappy results from his home state: "Mr. President, the certificate of the electoral vote of the state of California seems to be regular in form and authentic, and it appears therefrom that Barack Obama of the state of Illinois received 55 votes for president."

The Californians let out a cheer, which led most of the other delegations to give shouts for their own states. After Wyoming, Cheney read the final tally for Obama. The Democratic side let out a roar; a few applauded on the GOP side. The Democrats escalated, rising to their feet; the Republicans reluctantly climbed to theirs. Moments later, Cheney said the words that made Obama's election official.

Pelosi, seated next to Cheney, leaped to her feet to applaud. The vice president made an exasperated grin and looked down.

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