Tangled up in Purple

An off-the-cuff moment in the State of the Union Address.

Taken purely as a piece of political theater, tonight’s State of the Union speech was far less effective than Bush’s speech at the inaugural ceremony two weeks ago. In part, this is an inevitable consequence of the difference between domestic- and foreign-policy-centered speeches; it’s harder to set hearts aflutter when you’re talking about entitlement reform than when, like Braveheart, you can lead a charge with the cry of “FREEEE-DOOOM!”

But there were two highly theatrical moments, each of them centered around a strategically placed female audience member, that converged in an emotionally charged climax that neatly symbolized the dilemma of the U.S. involvement in Iraq. About 40 minutes into the speech, Bush introduced a young Iraqi woman, an activist named Safia Taleb al-Suhail, who held her still-purple fingers aloft in a trembling peace sign as the president explained how she had voted last Sunday with her family, despite the assassination of her father by Saddam’s agents 11 years ago. The crowd went wild with applause; how could you not? A few minutes later, Bush introduced the parents of Byron Norwood, a 25-year-old Marine killed in Fallujah. The soldier’s mother, Janet Norwood, stood to a thundering ovation, then leaned forward to embrace the Iraqi woman, who stood directly in front of her and to Laura Bush’s right. (My viewing companion observed that the women formed a kind of triangle-shaped trinity: Laura the wife, Mrs. Norwood the mother, Safia the daughter.) After the two women clung tearfully to each other for a moment, Mrs. Norwood bent to disentangle her son’s dogtags, which she had been clutching throughout the speech, and which had gotten caught on a button on the Iraqi woman’s cuff.

On both Fox and MSNBC immediately following the speech, the talking heads initially misinterpreted this gesture, saying that Mrs. Norwood had given her son’s dogtags to the Iraqi woman. Chris Matthews’ first follow-up comment as Bush left the podium: “I don’t think any words the president spoke could match the moment when he looked up and watched Janet Norwood give the dogtags of her dead son to that Iraqi woman tonight.” At the time, this struck me as odd; would a grieving mother really give such a significant object away to a complete stranger, especially after she had, essentially, already given the life of her own son? What would it even mean to hand over her son’s dogtags, and who in their right mind would accept such a gift? Re-watching the encounter, I was relieved to see that, post-hug, Mrs. Norwood was still firmly clutching the tags in her hand.

Later on MSNBC, Joe Scarborough and Ron Reagan wrangled over the extent to which the hug itself was staged, with Reagan claiming that he was “uncomfortable with using people that are in such obvious pain as a political prop.” Scarborough lit into him: “To look at that picture, to look at these two people in this historic moment, and to suggest that somebody cynically said, let’s put these people together … that’s just the height of cynicism.” Of course, someone had to make the seating chart for audience members, and however moving, the timing of Bush’s introductions of Mrs. Norwood and Ms. al-Suhail had to have been rehearsed at least once. But no one could have predicted the accidental fallout of that hug.

It’s a tiny moment, of course, a piece of political ephemera, this chance encounter of a button and a chain. But it struck me as I rewound and re-watched that hug that there couldn’t be a better metaphor for our country’s current position in Iraq; we want the best for the Iraqi people, really we do, but we’re afraid of getting more tangled up than we intended, and we’re wary of just how much we’re willing to give away.