They came to Capitol Hill and lent sobriety, dignity and urgency to the State of the Union address. They brought their humanity to a House chamber filled with partisan posturing, wan symbols and unruly bellowing. The politicians in the chamber could not agree on what laws should be passed or the root causes of a nation’s shame. But at least they could, for a few seconds, stand out of respect for a family’s pain.
The mother and stepfather of Tyre Nichols, who was beaten by Memphis police officers and later died of his wounds, sat in the first lady’s box for the State of the Union address. They were the couple in black, seated in the front row, not smiling, not crying. They were in Washington, facing cameras in the Capitol, less than a week after burying their child.
These citizens were in the room. But they shouldn’t have to be.
Brandon Tsay was at the speech, too. He’s the young man who wrestled a gun away from a shooter who had just completed a deadly rampage through a dance studio in Monterey Park, Calif., and had trained his sights on another. There were also Amanda and Josh Zurawski from Austin, who found themselves entangled in Texas’s strict abortion dictates that requires a life-or-death emergency before a woman can have sovereignty over her own body. They were among those invited by the administration to put a human face on the effects of intractable policy debates, partisan stubbornness and self-righteous legislators who believe they know more about a woman’s health and moral judgment than she does.
This tradition of inviting heroic citizens, grieving parents and resolute activists to sit with the first lady dates back to President Ronald Reagan. These men and women had no speaking role in the night’s theatrics. Instead, they are applause lines. They’re visual aids. They’re footnotes to history. They’re spears poking at the cracks and fault lines in the system.
Their mere presence is intended to lend weight and specificity to President Biden’s speech, which lasted for more than one hour and was dotted with rhetorical reaches across the aisle and his now self-declared mission “to restore the soul of this nation.” There were a multitude of boasts about low unemployment, about decreasing inflation, about the country producing more microchips, about how his father told him that a job is not just about a paycheck, it’s about dignity. The ticking off of this and that — the resurgence of unions, protecting Medicare and Social Security, negotiating prescription drug prices — seemed more insistent than perfunctory, given a recent poll that showed a majority of Americans don’t believe the president has accomplished much since taking office.
But the men and women who were invited to the Capitol to listen to the president’s speech mostly were not there to serve as evidence of the administration’s successes. They were examples of where it is striving — to fund research that leads to better outcomes after a cancer diagnosis, to remove lead pipes from water systems and protect the health of America’s children — and where it is struggling. They were there to be human placards demanding passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, to find a way to stem the plague of gun violence, to prevent democracy from fraying any further.
These citizens were in the room to remind their representatives to focus and to work. But mostly they were in the room to remind them to care about someone other than themselves.
The country’s lawmakers should not have to be reminded of the human consequences of their inaction and squabbling. Family members should not have to traffic their grief up on Capitol Hill to make it plain that the country needs to act; they should not have to force Congress to look them up and down and assess whether they are worth their time, worth their political capital, worth anything at all. They shouldn’t have to be backdrops to political theater.
But Congress can’t help putting on a show. The members paraded into the chamber smiling and loitering, acutely aware that the television cameras were on them. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) found himself caught in a traffic jam of legislators alongside Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.), a.k.a. Anthony Devolder, a.k.a. Kitara Ravache, and took on the affect of a man trying hard not to inhale to avoid a stink. The newly independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema — in her sunshine-yellow dress with its giant butterfly sleeves — shed of the shackles of her former Democratic Party affiliation, was nestled in with her kindred moderate Republicans. All those congressional lapels and dresses and blouses were adorned with a medley of messages: American flags and Ukrainian flags, pins reading 1870 — a reference to the first known instance of a free, unarmed Black man killed by a police officer.
The president stood at the lectern with a binder thick with the pages of his prepared speech. He was in his navy suit with his blue tie and white pocket square. A flag pin was affixed to his lapel. The new House speaker, Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), sat behind him along with Vice President Harris. The president spoke to a chamber that was at times boisterous and other times simply rude, with Republicans sometimes guffawing and booing and even shouting “It’s your fault!” when he spoke about the tragedy of the opioid crisis.
As he finished his address, the president gave his assessment of the country: “Because the soul of this nation is strong, because the backbone, the backbone of this nation is strong, because the people of this nation are strong, the State of the Union is strong.”
The citizens in the balcony were a testament to those words. The members of Congress owe them a debt.