Consider the numbers. When President Trump delivered his first State of the Union address, 45.6 million people tuned in. That didn’t match President Obama’s first address, which was seen by 52.4 million people, though neither matched President Bill Clinton’s 1993 speech, which brought in 66.9 million viewers. The figures tell a story, Clinton was the better orator than Obama, who was a better orator than Trump.
We are told in the headlines and by the pundits that the State of the Union is a worthless exercise, but anything seen annually by tens of millions of Americans is still a momentous exercise. When I was offered a ticket to sit in the chamber, it seemed like something I should do, at least once.
On the day of the address, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted to her followers that they should watch “none” of the State of the Union. But she, along with nearly every other Democrat was in the chamber when President Trump addressed the nation. There’s something irresistible about the stature of the event. It transcends parties and personalities and is one of the few moments when we are truly able to peer through the ages. The podium features Trump now, but it has framed Kennedy and Roosevelt. We can line their words neatly together and compare them with clean figures: viewership, length and even the reading level of the address is calculated. Perhaps that’s the reason President Trump seems to treat it with seriousness and why he reads from a teleprompter and waters down his racist rhetoric on this annual occasion.
Ocasio-Cortez was in white and the sole time that I thought I was close enough for an interview before the speech, she slid into a lectern beside Dana Bash of CNN to do a television appearance. Finally, exasperated, I managed to find her communications director, Corbin Trent, and asked him what Ocasio-Cortez was most looking forward to in the State of the Union. He grinned and quipped, the end of it.
Freshman star Rep. Rashida Tlaib later told Playboy that she wasn’t sure if Trump’s praise of women was sincere, but that the reaction of the women in white certainly was.
Playboy was granted a coveted seat during the address, in the first row of the press gallery, directly above Donald Trump’s right shoulder. Looking into the split crowd, on the left side of the aisle were the Democrats—nearly all of the women wore white, and I’m forced to wrestle with the metaphor that best paints the image; ghostly, cloaked or even whitecaps upon the sea of black and blue suits. In The New Yorker, writer Alexandra Schwartz called the women’s juxtaposition “a slice of wedding cake on a dark tablecloth.”
Spotted among the women in white is a lone ghostly male, Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, who slipped himself into a white tuxedo jacket with a black shawl lapel. After the speech, in a hallway outside the chamber, he told me the jacket is from Men’s Wearhouse and chuckled that it was nearly impossible to find a white tux jacket in Washington, D.C. in February. In some sense, that’s what the State of the Union really is on the ground, a patchwork of these vignettes. The white jacket worn in solidarity, and the hero guests carrying their stories of surviving school shootings and facing deportation and landing on the chalky shore of the moon.
It was odd to peer down at President Trump. From above his hair looks golden, and there’s a pronounced bald spot on the right that widens like a gash where his exaggerated comb-over begins. When he delivers rhetorical points, he punctuates them with his fingertips, from above it appears that he’s picking bits of lint from the air.
The speech itself was a boring compendium of nonsense, he rattled along in basic verses as if afraid of notching specific offenses into history. The highlight of the address came as Trump praised the record-breaking number of women in Congress, and the Democratic women in suffragette white high-fived each other and cheered. In an ugly and partisan tenure, it was a moment of reprieve. Freshman progressive star Rep. Rashida Tlaib later told Playboy that she wasn’t sure if Trump’s praise of women was sincere, but that the reaction of the women in white certainly was.
The unspoken second character in the address was the role of the woman. Seated out of reach of the cameras tuned to Trump were Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, would tell reporters after the address that as the women stood and celebrated, “we noticed there were no women on the other side of the chamber, it was all on the Democratic side.” She added “if women are really contributing and diversity is great, the Republican Party has a long way to go.”
And gazing into the chamber, I was struck by the moment. Perhaps this was more a signpost than the Washington press corps realized. President Trump was giving a speech that sounded remarkably like him gazing into 2020. In The Atlantic, scribbler Elaina Plott wrote that the speech marked the beginning of Trump’s campaign, but the unspoken second character in the address was the role of the woman. Seated out of reach of the cameras tuned to Trump were Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar. Three of those women have declared their intention to seek the presidency and the fourth, Klobuchar, is expected to announce her ambition to unseat Trump during an event on Sunday. Their presence in the room was the honored guest that the president didn’t invite and the guest that threatened at his power.
As the commander-in-chief railed against undocumented immigrants and abortion, trying to chip away at themes that will form the Democratic platform in 2020, the women sat stone-faced. At one bit of rhetoric, while Trump was waving his hand and rolling into the teleprompter, Gillibrand sighed and rolled her eyes. Her team would quickly package the image and use it to fundraise.
Warren sat near the front row, wearing not white but blue, and Klobuchar was close behind her in a burgundy outfit. Kamala Harris in black. Across the aisle the swarm of Republican men cheered at Trump’s lines, but if you look into the white patch, it feels like the women have turned if not the tide, then the conversation. At the instance in which Trump told the nation that the State of our Union is strong, I couldn’t help but gaze into the chamber and nod at the undertone: the future of our Union is women.