INDIANAPOLIS – If any one day could encapsulate what a strange and bewildering place America has become, Feb. 4 may have been that day.
When results – finally, belatedly – began to trickle out from the disastrous Iowa caucuses and it became clear former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg had won an unexpected triumph, the first openly gay major presidential candidate in American history stepped before the cameras.
Buttigieg is a disciplined guy, one not given to showing his emotions.
But, on this occasion, he spoke with real feeling. He said Iowa was not just a victory for his campaign, but for every kid in America whoever grew up feeling excluded from the community or even from his family.
It was a grand moment, a glimpse at the glorious future the American experience always has promised, that here the human spirit would throw off every shackle and step fully and unfettered into the light of liberty.
The day’s other moments were less uplifting.
President Donald Trump delivered his fourth State of the Union address in the evening.
He came to the speech with the shadow of impeachment looming over him. His defenders in the U.S. Senate – fellow Republicans who voted not to hear witnesses and vowed to acquit him even while acknowledging that he had done something wrong, even awful – reassured everyone who would listen that the president had learned his lesson. He would behave better going forward.
There was little evidence to support their assurances.
Trump’s address was not the speech of a contrite man.
It was a snarl of triumphalism, a battle cry to summon his seething, resentful base to greater acts of defiance in the service of largely imaginary victories.
There was something surreal about the speech itself. Most of the claims that were not flatly false were either wildly exaggerated or contorted out of context.
The facts are that the American economy has been growing slower, not faster, under Donald Trump than under previous presidents. Wage growth has stagnated. And at least part of the reason the job numbers are so good is that many – too many – Americans now must take on two or three jobs just to get by.
It mattered not.
The speech’s claims and the fact-checking and record-correcting that soon followed were obscured into invisibility by the evening’s petty dramas.
The father of a child slain in the mass Parkland shooting was thrown out when he yelled out at the president’s defense of the nation’s lax gun laws. A handful of members of Congress walked out voluntarily as a show of solidarity.
Most nights that would have been the headline.
Not this one, though.
President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, exchanged a series of petty snubs and insults.
Trump began by ignoring Pelosi’s offered and customary handshake.
Pelosi responded by introducing Trump as “the president of the United States” rather than using the traditional welcome:
“Members of Congress, it is my high honor and distinct privilege to introduce the president of the United States.”
Then, at the end of the speech, Pelosi tore the text of Trump’s speech in half and set it aside.
It was not an exchange that reflected well on either the president or the speaker.
Pelosi, though, got the worst of it.
She and her supporters may have thought she achieved a kind of tactical victory in the short term. The bitter byplay between the nation’s chief executive and the leader of the people’s house drowned out much of the president’s self-congratulatory messaging in the speech, but it came at a cost.
People expect boorishness from Donald Trump because that’s who he is and always has been.
Until now, they hadn’t expected it from Nancy Pelosi.
In the long run, that will cost her and her party.
To be an alternative to Donald Trump, Democrats must demonstrate that they’re better than Donald Trump. They won’t give voters an alternative by being as petty and rude as he is.
Even more foolishly, they’ll be taking the fight to where Trump thrives. He’s at his best and most dangerous in the gutter. Democrats won’t beat him there.
But that’s where things are now in this nation.
Moments of grace. Moments of ugliness.
Just another day in America.
FOOTNOTE: John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.