Thursday, February 03, 2005

Bush's State of the Union Address: a surprise tearjerker at the end

Last night was George Bush's "State of the Union" address, which for about the first forty-five minutes was the usual partisan blather that State of the Union speeches are infamous for. It was a surreal scene with half of the crowd (the Republicans) vigorously standing and applauding after every point, and the other half (the Democrats) sitting like they were watching a boring movie. Then things got a bit more interesting.

Yesterday was no ordinary State of the Union speech - it just happened to be a few days after the first free elections that Iraq has had in over 50 years: an election that has widely been called a success, and for which many American soldiers and Iraqis have sacrificed their lives to attain. As Bush brought up the topic of the Iraqi election, the camera turned to the crowd showing lawmakers holding up their ink-stained index fingers in a victory sign (they had stained them with an ink-blotter earlier to make a symbolic gesture). Later in his speech, Bush introduced a guest of honor Safia Taleb al-Suheil, an Iraqi woman living in Baghdad who had just cast her first vote there, and who brandished her ink-stained index finger to a round of applause from the house. Ms. al-Suheil was sitting right next to Bush's wife Laura in the visitor's gallery.

The surprise emotional moment in the speech came when Bush told the story of a young American marine named Byron Norwood who had died in combat in Iraq, and introduced his parents, William and Janet Norwood, who were sitting in the row right behind Laura Bush and Safia al-Suheil, and looked like they were fighting back tears during Bush's speech. As they were introduced Norwoods stood, and Safia al-Suheil turned around and embraced Janet Norwood in a long and emotional hug, bringing an extended round of applause from the standing crowd. While unplanned, the symbolism of that hug was quite obvious: Ms. al-Suheil would not have had the opportunity to vote if Byron Norwood and many others like him had not sacrificed their lives to give it to her.

A suitably symbolic climax in what is undoubtedly an historic week.