Politicians can be among the last to realize when rituals become obsolete.
It was one of those weeks in Washington. And it seems it could mark the beginning of the end for one of the most oft-used expressions of humanity in American politics — the moment of silence for those who have died.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) happened to be the man on-camera when the traditionally bipartisan moment became unglued. Following Sunday's attack that killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Ryan asked for a moment of silence Monday night as he gaveled the House to order. Ryan then crossed his chest and bowed his head.
But as the chamber fell quiet, a handful of Democrats walked out. And when Ryan lifted his head a moment later, there was an eruption of protest from Democrats critical of Republicans' refusal to again vote on gun control legislation in the wake of a mass shooting.
Online, thousands began using the Twitter hashtag #NoMoreSilence, mostly in calls for gun control.
So, what went wrong with the moment of silence?
Let's for the moment set aside the gun debate — as well as the religious debate over the moment of silence, which some church-going Americans still view as a poor substitute for prayer in public. The real issue, says one of the country's top experts on political speech, is that through a combination of ritual, around-the-clock news, social media and frequent mass shootings, the politician's moment of silence has lost its solemnity — even become "annoying." (Similarly, some -- including President Obama in October — have begun to shun the old "thoughts and prayers" ritual after mass shootings.)
"It has become non-authentic; it's cliched, it's what is expected," said Michael Sheehan. "Particularly now, we're aware of stuff so quickly, so instantly and so visually, the knee-jerk reaction just isn't good enough — and as a matter of fact, it's kind of annoying."
A speech and debate coach to presidents, vice presidents and governors over the past three decades, Sheehan says it's time for politicians to do better. So, from The Fix to all the politicians out there, here's a Q&A with Sheehan and some free advice: Don't assume your moment of silence is immune to politics.
THE FIX: What is going on, why did a moment of silence this week seem to become a flash point?
SHEEHAN: I've helped a lot of people through things like this … and I'm saying this from a nonpartisan point-of-view, just a media-observer point of view: Things become cliche and become counterproductive.
In the corporate world, when something goes wrong, it's, 'We take these things very seriously,' and it almost makes you snarl. And the phrase that is now in that category inside the Beltway for politicians is, 'Our thoughts and prayers are with …' It's almost gone 180 degrees. Something that was meant, I believe, with the best of intentions, but is now having a negative repercussion.
THE FIX: But why is that?
SHEEHAN: The first thing that struck me this week, I was thinking about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her [five] stages of grief. … Well, it seems to me that in the coverage of something like this, it gets condensed to four stages. First stage, shock. Second stage, sadness. Third, anger and then fourth, action.
And where you are in the country — and there is a difference between the epicenter of an event and the rest of the country — they are not on the same tracks, one usually gets ahead of the other. They may be in Stage 2 and we may be already going into Stage 3.
THE FIX: You've helped politicians prepare for making public comments after tragedies. Is there a right way or length for a moment of silence? Paul Ryan's was about 15 seconds. At another meeting I was at this week, a local Democratic representative kept his head bowed for 49 seconds — one for each life lost. But it went on so long the meeting became awkward, with politicians lifting their heads, looking around and the audience fidgeting.
SHEEHAN: I think both in church and in synagogue, very often the priest or the minister or the rabbi will call, not for a minute of silence, but a time of silent prayer, and if you think about it, those things go on. The last time I went to a service, not that long ago, probably about 45 seconds, and my observation would be that from the inside, it kind of takes you 10 to 15 seconds to wrap your head around it, and then to really think about what you are being asked to think about. …
I think that's the whole point — that it should make you uncomfortable. You are being asked to think about something that is not pleasant. I mean, nobody is asking you to go to your happy place. I think moments of silence are meant to do two things: One, to give respect to the person who was hurt or killed, but it's also to make you deal with it personally.
THE FIX: But if people across the country are at different stages of grieving, numbed from shootings and might be increasingly getting their news in snippets, how does a politician rise above and be seen as addressing a tragedy more sincerely?
SHEEHAN: It doesn't matter if you are making a statement on the House floor or outside. One is the picture, and the other is the quote -- or you could say, soundbite. ... If you go back, it's the same pattern every single time. The one that I was there for was President Clinton's eulogy for Oklahoma City: "You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything. And you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes."
For the picture, you have that picture of President George W. Bush on top of the rubble with the megaphone, so that's going to end up being one or two of those pictures, and does your picture fit authentically within that frame — and does the soundbyte?
THE FIX: What's an example of something authentic?
SHEEHAN: [Vice President] Biden has spoken on this several times and at a meeting of families of people who have been killed in action overseas and he was, of course, empathizing, because he once got a call like that, and he talked about how people, and how he knew they meant well but would say: "Joe, I know exactly how you feel."
And he said he would get furious internally because he knew they had no damn idea. And the audience, shockingly, broke into applause, like standing ovation, because that was exactly it — that was exactly the feeling that they had.
THE FIX: So will politicians continue to do moments of silence?
SHEEHAN: Oh sure. What else are you going to do? Your options are limited. But at some point, someone is going to come up with a better idea. … and elected leaders are going to have to try to do better. …
The really incredible stuff is sort of a collision between, I think, honest emotion and spur of the moment.