You know how you can tell the Age of Reagan has ended? Because at his State of the Union address, Barack Obama didn't do any of those ordinary-folks-who-make-a-difference shout-outs to the gallery, as every POTUS (that is, Populist of the United States) has since the Gipper's first SOTU in 1982. But if Obama had called on someone, given the frustrated and hectoring nature of his speech, I bet I know who he would have liked to ask to stand up and take a bow: James O'Keefe, the putative pimp and ACORN slayer.
Of course, since O'Keefe was arrested Monday for allegedly tampering with Senator Mary Landrieu's (D-La.) office phone system in New Orleans, he wasn't around: The Louisiana judge let O'Keefe out on bail the day before the speech only on condition that the 25-year-old be confined to his parent's house in New Jersey. That same day, O'Keefe's father dismissed his son's pimply plumber routine as a "prank" on MSNBC and the lawyer for one of his co-defendants called it an "ill-designed stunt." "You're dealing with kids," he said, desperately trying to fling a blanket of "boys-will-be-boys" over a potential security breach in the GOP-designated Era of Terror. James O'Keefe's father said his son was an "honest man" and never meant to "hurt anybody."
So what's the Republican leadership's excuse?
Senators Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) were giggling during the speech as if they were the most popular kids in class (though in truth they only think they are). The House's John Boehner (R-Ill.) and Eric Cantor (R-Va.) were smirking and practically eye-rolling, pretty much to the same effect. These guys could not be budged from their "Let's not acknowledge Betty today!" act, even when Obama proposed sending $30 billion of repaid TARP funds to small community banks for loans to local businesses — something just about everybody outside of Washington wants to see happen.
Obama seemed to be the only adult in the room, lecturing both sides of the aisle about what the people want done and shaking his head over their pigheaded immaturity.
So much so that I almost felt a sudden pang of sympathy for Mitch, who's only 66 years old. Should the rest of his life be ruined because of a stupid prank? Because, after all, that's what the last 30 years of Republican dominance were — you know, it got a little out of hand, what with bankrupting the nation, plunging the world into a Great Recession, tying us up in two losing wars, and staining the national honor by indulging in indiscriminate torture. But, hey, some parties get a little wild. Like J.P. Morgan's Jamie Dimon said about the financial collapse, these things happen "every five to seven years" (never mind that they didn't happen at all in the 40 years that New Deal regulations held sway).
You know how kids are. You tell them they shouldn't do something and that's exactly what they do! Should we put them in prison for that?
Not a chance! Young Republican boys deserve a second chance. And if you are a fond, indulgent parent, like community organizer Barack Obama, you give them a third, a fourth, a fifth chance.
From Watergate vets Donald Segretti and Dwight Chapin to Lee Atwater, Jack Abramoff, Karl Rove and now James O'Keefe and pals, the Republican Party has been recruiting college-age kids who have been willing to violate the law or go right to its edge to get what they want for decades. They call it showing a little zeal, and, anyway, it's what you have to do when you represent the side with fewer voters. Canny as Obama's SOTU was, pushing back at both the sensible left and the extreme right, wouldn't it be nice if Obama could acknowledge that, at some point, even Republicans reach legal age? Some of those bankers committed felonies, some of those GOP leaders are entirely untrustworthy, some of the things done to transfer wealth from the poor and middle class to the very rich were just plain wrong, criminally wrong.
If he'd do that just once, then I'd be glad he won. Again.
Leslie Savan blogs for The Nation about media and politics. Widely published in magazines and newspapers, she is the author of Slam Dunks and No Brainers: Pop Language in Your Life, the Media, and, Like...Whatever and The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV, and American Culture.Leslie Savan blogs for The Nation about media and politics. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org