“Sentimentality,” wrote James Baldwin in 1949, “is the mark of dishonesty.” With his pronounced antipathy for fakery and cant, Baldwin denounced the “ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion” as an exercise in manipulation. Sentimentality condescends. It masks indifference. Those taken in by “the wet eyes of the sentimentalists,” Baldwin believed, become party to a lie.
Second only to Hollywood, Washington specializes in orchestrating spurious displays of emotion. It’s the daily theater of American political life. Crowding in front of TV cameras, elected officials make a show of shock and indignation, decrying some outrage inflicted on the American people and vowing to set things right if only members of the opposition will cease their carping and obstruction.
We’re all in on the joke, of course: the pols themselves, the targets of their ridicule, the jaded reporters posing questions that won’t be answered, the talking heads subsequently parsing what little the pols actually had to say, and, not least of all, mere citizens taking it all in and not believing a word of it. The manifest fraudulence of the performance expresses the political establishment’s contempt for the American people, treated as if they are too stupid to see through it all. In tolerating this perpetual charade, the American people in turn express their own attitude toward the political establishment. The contempt is mutual.
Yet every once in awhile, that establishment outdoes itself, elevating the ostentatious parading of spurious emotion to new heights. Last week’s presidential address to a joint session of Congress provided one such occasion.
The event’s nominal purpose was to allow President Trump to communicate his agenda to members of the legislative branch. Its actual purpose was to give the president a chance to appear presidential, supplanting his image as an intemperate and divisive crackpot with one conveying the appearance of a high-minded unifier.
In that regard, success depended less on whatever the president might say than on the response his words elicited, not only in the chamber where he spoke, but across the nation. Here was theater on a truly epic scale.
At the center of this attempt to retool Trump’s image was manufactured sentimentality. As has been standard practice since the days of Ronald Reagan, the Trump White House had seeded the audience with props — ordinary citizens whose personal stories symbolize values with which the president’s handlers wish to associate the president himself. In paying tribute to whatever his invited guests have accomplished, experienced, or endured, the president identifies himself with their achievements and their sacrifices.
Needless to say, none of this occurs spontaneously. All is scripted, the players knowing in advance their assigned parts. The president himself both stars and directs. Sharing the spotlight with others, he basks in the reflected illumination.
On this particular evening, Trump’s props included the widow of a deceased (and yet to be replaced) Supreme Court justice; a young woman bravely battling a dread disease and another who overcame enormous disadvantages to gain an education; four Americans who had lost family members to violence perpetrated by illegal immigrants; and the widow of the first US service member killed in action since Trump became commander in chief.
The emotional high point of the evening came when Trump paid tribute to the grieving widow Carryn Owens and to her deceased husband Ryan, a Navy SEAL killed during a raid in Yemen. A standing ovation ensued. For nearly two minutes, all attention focused on a tearful Carryn Owens. For a brief moment, her mourning became ours.
With their trademark prurience, the television networks milked that moment for all it was worth. So too did Trump himself, remarking, “Ryan is looking down right now, you know that, and he’s very happy because I think he just broke a record,” presumably for sustained applause during a presidential address. “Ryan laid down his life for his friends, for his country, and for our freedom,” the president added in his own display of spurious emotion. For that, “we will never forget him.”
But we will, and for the most part already have. Certainly Trump and those around him have moved on. They have, for example, rejected demands by Ryan’s father for a formal investigation into the operation that took his son’s life. “Why,” William Owens has asked, “did there have to be this stupid mission when it wasn’t even barely a week into [Trump’s] administration?” William Owens received no answer to his question. Nor did he attend the president’s address to Congress.
Yet the contrast between the respect shown for the grief-stricken widow and that shown for the grief-stricken father reveals something important about American politics today.
With near unanimity, we profess to hold the troops in high regard. We honor their service, as we rightly should. Yet there it stops, well short of even an approximation of accountability. Stupid missions and stupid wars continue without serious examination and almost without notice.
And so, accompanied by ostentatious displays of spurious emotion, presidents get away with what in other contexts would qualify as murder.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History” has just appeared in paperback.