Dear Joe Kennedy, whatever you do, don’t mess this up
Congrats! You’ve been tapped to deliver the Democratic Party’s response to President Trump’s first State of the Union address, officially making you a Rising Star.™
And why shouldn’t you be? You could’ve coasted on the Kennedy name. But instead, by all accounts, you’ve worked hard to get to where you are. And so it’s fitting that you’ll speak not from some palatial estate but from a vocational school in blue-collar Fall River.
This could be your biggest moment yet. Three officially licensed State of the Union respondents — Gerald Ford, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton — have gone on to deliver their very own State of the Union addresses as president.
But beware: Another went on to become Marco Rubio.
The solemn duty you’ve accepted Tuesday night is, to be sure, a real honor. Of all the Democrats in all the land, the party chose you. And responding to this particularly unpopular president would seem to present some unique opportunities.
It probably feels like you could look directly into the camera, roll your eyes, and say, “This guy, am I right?” Cut to the JKIII 2020 card, and half the country would immediately empty their wallets into your campaign account.
This should be easy. Every lefty with a Twitter account has become a semiprofessional insult comedian thanks to @realdonaldtrump’s habit of posting bizarre screeds every morning.
But history suggests that these 10 or 15 minutes could also turn out to be a trap.
Who could forget Bobby Jindal? OK, everyone, which is kind of my point. In 2009, Jindal was governor of Louisiana, and, like you, a 37-year-old rising star in his party when he responded to a joint address of Congress by President Obama. (A joint address is the rookie president’s State of the Union equivalent.)
Jindal’s aw-shucks delivery engendered comparisons to Kermit the Frog and Kenneth, the unnecessarily cheerful page on “30 Rock.” Now the governor of Louisiana is a Democrat and Jindal is writing hot takes for conservative news outlets.
Trust me, Joe, you don’t want to end up writing hot takes for a living.
And then there was Rubio, who committed the perfectly reasonable act of drinking water with his mouth.
Who did he think he was? Aquaman? It’s true that literally every person who has ever walked the earth must drink water to live . . . but get off my TV with that, you overhydrated freak!
Even blowing it catastrophically doesn’t have to be the end of your career. Bill Clinton’s response in 1985 was part speech, part highlights from a series of profoundly weird focus groups moderated by Democratic elected officials sitting around in what appear to be hotel conference rooms.
If the aim was to bore and confuse audiences so severely that they immediately forgot the whole thing, then mission accomplished: Clinton, remembered by exactly no one as that nerd from the State of the Union, took the oath of office eight years later.
Clinton was following Reagan, who was beloved. Jindal and Rubio had the misfortune of following a truly gifted orator who was, at both points, quite popular. You, Joe? You don’t exactly have a tough act to follow.
The only person yet to attempt to follow Trump to the microphone is former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear, who responded to Trump’s joint address to Congress last February. Beshear memorably delivered his nine-minute address while seated in the middle of a diner that may or may not have been haunted.
The dominant reaction to Beshear’s talk was not, “Wow those are powerful ideas — who is this incredible speaker?” It was, “LOOK OUT, OLD MAN, THERE ARE GHOSTS BEHIND YOU!” or “Is this the new season of ‘Twin Peaks’? ”
But a year ago, Democrats were still reeling from Trump’s ascendance. The party that had just gotten unceremoniously dunked on by the kind of “real Americans” — code for white people, we’ve since learned — who might find their way into a dimly lit Kentucky diner for some reason. So there was poor Beshear, letting America know in the strangest possible terms that the Democrats are the party of the people.
The intervening year has lifted all such pretense. We know now that anything you do on Tuesday night will appear positively presidential compared with whatever precedes it. You could slam your finger in a desk drawer, blow your nose into your tie, and mispronounce your own name, and it would sound like the Gettysburg Address compared with whatever lunacy the Orange Guy has cooked up. Hell, you’re even more orange than he is.
So maybe just play it straight.