We have too much political theater in our country. Time-wasting scream-fests on cable TV, reporters masquerading as objective analysts, and media moguls profiting from the divisive environment they help create. The State of the Union, however, holds a prominent, perhaps righteous, place, amid the American political tumult. This annual address has become an honored tradition – as the competing power centers are gathered in one place, at one time, with attention on every word.
President Donald Trump spoke clearly and directly in his first State of the Union. He was reflective and serious in tone. I thought the speech was probing, purposeful and personal. It was the third longest in history, one of the most watched, and according to all polls, positively received. The President reviewed the first year accomplishments, including support for veterans, the annihilation of ISIS, and a particular focus on new tax policy. I thought one of his strongest lines was, “The era of economic surrender is over.”
The speech included stories of daunting sacrifice and reflections on the most tender human capacities. Particularly compelling was the story of Ji Seong-ho, a defector from Kim Jong-un’s brutal regime. As a starving boy, he attempted to take coal from a train to barter for food. His almost unimaginable journey after a horrific accident, the loss of his father, an encounter with Christians in China, where he fled on crutches, and, finally, a journey that led to another round of torture by North Koreans, still could not break his spirit. Stabilized by prosthetic limbs he received in South Korea after escaping, Mr. Ho held his crutches high inside the House chamber, and kept holding them. To me, it was a moment of victory – for human dignity – for the world to see, in the people’s House of the United States of America. As the President said, “The State of our Union is strong because our people are strong.”
On another note, thank you for the concern about the train accident on Wednesday. I was on the train with some of my family and many other Members of Congress. Suddenly, there was a loud explosion-like noise and the train jolted. A number of people were thrown forward. I thought the train derailed or it had hit a fallen tree. The train then stopped and things became clearer. There was garbage all over a vacant lot next to the tracks. Farther back was a smoking cab of a garbage truck near the rear of the train. A very heavy feeling came upon me as I realized that something awful just happened.
A man appeared outside and began to sign “911” with his fingers. A number of medical doctors serve in Congress and they rushed over to try to save the injured. Understanding the gravity, House chaplain Fr. Conroy hurried outside as well. One man named Chris Foley died and the others in the truck were severely injured. Fortunately, there were only minor injuries on the train.
As the situation was unfolding, one of the neighbors in this small rural town of Crozet, Va., came over to the railroad embankment. He yelled to me, asking if we needed water or anything, reminding me once again of that spark of kindness in so many people, particularly in the midst of tragedy. By that point, the media had arrived and a television reporter also shouted a request to please come down and speak. I thought it necessary, so I climbed down the high rocky embankment, got tangled in some briars, and eventually made my way over.
The gentleman and I tried to piece together what happened, and we spoke a bit about his community. I told him that I was from Nebraska and that this was a group of Congress Members on our way to a retreat, as Republicans and Democrats do annually. It seemed appropriate to ask if he had seen the State of the Union the night before and what he thought. He hesitated – said he appreciated some of it – but just wanted everyone to work together.
As I began to return to the train, we shook hands and he said, “I appreciate what y’all do.” I then realized that he had cleared away the briars to make my path back a little easier.