(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Updated on 1/29/2008 at 10:20 am with MSNBC material.
by Frank James
So President Bush has delivered his last State of the Union. And what everyone in the House press gallery is talking about isn't the speech. Rather, it's the snub.
Sen. Barack Obama refused to make himself available to greet Sen. Hillary Clinton before the speech.
When members of the Senate entered the chamber, Obama came in before Clinton. He went out of his way to greet as many House members as possible and walked halfway across the chamber to greet members of the Supreme Court, the president's cabinet, the military joint chiefs.
That made what happened next even more striking. Obama returned to stand by his seat next to Sen. Edward Kennedy who endorsed Obama today in a widely watched event that reverberated across the political world.
As Clinton approached, Kennedy made sure to make eye contact and indicated he wanted to shake her hand. Clinton leaned towards Kennedy over a row of seats and Kennedy leaned in towards her. They shook hands.
Obama stood icily staring at Clinton during this, then turned his back and stepped a few feet away. Kennedy may've wanted to make peace with Clinton but Obama clearly wanted no part of that.
As president, Obama has said he would meet with the U.S.'s enemies without precondition. But making nice with Clinton apparently is another mattter after the increasingly angry fight the two have waged, with charges and countercharges, for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The sense in the press gallery was that Obama didn't cover himself in glory. Someone even used the word "childish." (Not this writer.) Judging by how much conversation there was about this brush off in the press gallery, Americans will be hearing a lot more about this tomorrow and in coming days.
The fact that much of the discussion in the press gallery after Bush's was about the snub is probably an indication of how we journalists and perhaps the nation are already moving past Bush, how the presidential campaign is increasingly crowding out anything Bush has to say .
Not that you could move past him completely. It was, after all, his night to a considerable extent.
When the president entered the packed chamber, once he got through the gauntlet of well wishers and ascended to the podium, he was cheered lustily by Republicans for what seemed like many minutes while he received polite applause from the Democrats. As the noise washed over him, he looked like a man who was really enjoying himself.
As White House aides had indicated in recent days, the speech contained no major new initiatives since the president has just a year left in the White House and he's dealing with a Democratic Congress that's not exactly friendly.
Still, if there was no major news or memorable soundbite, this SOTU was interesting because it was the last featuring this president and because at least two potential successors were sitting there on the Democratic side glowering at him much of the night.
Oh, there were moments when Clinton and Obama stood and politely applauded the president, like when he spoke about the nation owing a debt of gratitude to the military serving so bravely in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But there were many moments when the two leading Democratic presidential candidates sat on their hands, like the rest of their Democratic.colleagues.
And there was at least one instance when Clinton shook her head at the president. It was when he said "...As families have to balance their budget, so should government." The thought bubble above her head seemed to be "Can you believe this guy?"
There was one moment when Bush seemed to take a shot at his predecessor and Sen. Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, who's on the receiving end of a lot of criticism lately. The former president has said repeatedly that he believes the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 unfairly benefit the superwealthy, like himself.
"Others have said they would personally be happy to pay higher taxes. I welcome their enthusiasm, and I am pleased to report that the IRS accepts both checks and money orders," Bush said.
Clinton gave Bush the kind of look Obama had given her a few minutes earlier.
When Bush got into the energy part of his speech, it was noteworthy that when the president mentioned increasing the use of "emissions-free nuclear power" Obama didn't applaud.
He probably didn't want to give Clinton, who has attacked his pro-nuclear energy position (Illinois operates the most nuclear plants in the nation, after all) any more ammunition on that front.
This SOTU had its typical moments, like when the president would say something that would send his Republicans cheering while Democrats would sit mutely just waiting for the speech to be over, like when the president advocated for trade agreements.
But there were also some times when some odd, clapping coalitions occurred. One of the oddest was when the president threw out a red-meat line meant for conservatives about strict constructionist judges.
"On matters of justice, we must trust in the wisdom of our Founders and empower judges who understand that the Constitution means what it says," Bush said.
This got an ovation from Republicans and, on the other side of the aisle, Rep. Maxine Waters, one of the most liberal members of the Congress who obviously inferred her own civil-libertarian meaning onto what the president said.
After Bush completed his speech and left the rostrum, he slowly walked up the center aisle of the chamber, through the lawmakers and congressional staffers who asked him to autograph copies of his speech.
For a man who usually is in bed by the time this speech finished tonight, around 10 pm, he lingered some time, like he wasn't in a rush to leave, like he was savoring what was probably his last time in the House chamber. And he probably was.
Bush's speech may not have been one of his most memorable efforts, but even on a night of an average speech, the event is so altogether extraordinary that it brings its own excitement for anyone who's a student of politics.
How could you not be riveted by the sight of Jenna Bush clapping for her father in a way that resembled the alligator-jaw motion used by fans of the University of Florida athletic teams?
Or of the chairmen of three of the House's most powerful committees, Charlie Rangel of Ways and Means, David Obey of Appropriations and John Dingell of Energy and Commerce, sitting together, bemused by a lame-duck president's veto threats?
Or of former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican, who more than once pointed to the servicemembers in front of him with his good hand when the president got to the point in his speech where he talked about taking care of veterans.
Or of the four black-robed Supreme Court justices who attended: Chief Justice John Roberts and associate justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito sitting there in the front row and wearing their most poker of poker faces when Bush talked about the government's need to conduct survellance in its terror fight without obtaining judicial warrants.
Or Bush, after stepping down from the rostrum, greeting Rep. Rahm Emanuel by grabbing the lawmaker from Illinois behind his neck and playfully pulling Emanuel closer to him, the way a father would grab a son, or a coach his top player.
At one point near the end of the president's speech, the watchers became the watched when a news photographer in the gallery behind me stumbled over something in the crammed aisle, making a clatter and drawing a "what the heck is going on up there?" look from Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
All, in all, it is the Super Bowl of political people watching.
Update: On MSNBC this morning, David Axelrod, Obama's top campaign strategist, tried to explain away the snub in an interview with Joe Scarborough. Axelrod attempts to make it sound like a matter of a single out-of-context moment being captured by photographers. The problem with that is, those of us in the the room saw the context.
SCARBOROUGH: Now, there's a picture that we're seeing, that we saw across the wires from last night's State of the Union address. … Where it appears that Barack Obama turns his back on Hillary Clinton, snubs her, and people on the floor said that it was – appeared to be intentional, that he didn't want to be around, didn't want to shake her hand when Ted Kennedy was there. Can you comment on that picture?
AXELROD: No, I don't think he snubbed her at all. First of all, they acknowledged each other as they entered the chamber. But I think he knew that Senator Kennedy and Senator Clinton were friends. This was obviously an awkward day from that standpoint, and I don't think he wanted to stand there while Senator Kennedy was greeting Senator Clinton. And I think that was an appropriate sentiment. Unfortunately, the camera caught it in a different way, and so it got interpreted that way. And that's the kind of environment we're in right now. It's a very competitive race, so every little thing is going to be interpreted in that way. But it was really a matter of letting Senator Kennedy have his own conversation, his own greeting with Senator Clinton without him hovering over them.
BRZEZINSKI: I guess. I mean, I guess the Clinton campaign may see it as a snub. We've been getting a few e-mails.
SCARBOROUGH: You're right. And then it was also interesting afterwards, David --
AXELROD: in this environment, every single thing can be – can be inflated and interpreted and will in a political – in a hyper-political light. But it is what I suggested. I think it's understandable that he would not want to stand there with Senator Kennedy as if he were lording it over her. You know, I understand that.