HONOLULU, Hawaii, Jan. 12, 2016 – The annual State of the Union Address has long been a staple of presidential politics, but what would happen in an America where ordinary people were called upon to speak before Congress about the plight of America and her place in the world?
Hawaii author Danny de Gracia explores that possibility with his new book, “American Kiss,” a collection of short satirical stories that features an episode where Congress replaces the president’s big speech with an address from a randomly selected voter. Speaking with CDN about his new book and Obama’s final State of the Union Address, de Gracia tells us that the key problem in America is too many politicians speaking and not enough listening to America’s citizenry.
Lisa Ruth: Danny, there’s a growing sense among many political observers that 2016 is quickly becoming the “year of the outsider” because of a disconnect between voters and people in leadership power. People like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who represent extreme opposite wings of both political spectrums, are basically the most popular right now. President Obama’s final State of the Union is expected to sharpen that rift even further, as he makes a last minute push for unfinished agendas and his White House legacy. You explored an interesting possibility in your new book, “American Kiss,” with a short story that deals with what would happen if an ordinary voter were selected to give the SOTU instead of an elected president. Tell us a little bit about that.
Danny de Gracia: Thanks, Lisa! The country is definitely more divided, angry and confused in 2016 than almost any other time in recent history that anyone can remember. Riots, mass shootings, terrorist attacks, paranoia, distrust of various groups – that’s all a state of disunion.
A few years ago, I wrote an article for Communities which asked why presidents always say, as a perfunctory tradition, that “the state of our Union is strong” when everything else could be going completely wrong. In that article, I suggested that politicians should stop giving speeches and start listening to ordinary people like nurses, taxi drivers, blue collar workers and so on if they really wanted to know how America was doing. That idea ended up becoming the basis for one of the political vignettes, “State of the Union,” in my novel, “American Kiss.”
The satirical short story I wrote paints a near-future America where populists have come into power – sound familiar? – and they successfully amend the Constitution to require an ordinary person to be selected by lottery to give a speech each year on the State of the Union in the hopes of increasing voter participation in the political process, a token phrase which, as a former legislative staffer, I used to hear all the time with minimal sincerity involved.
In our story, the fictional national lottery selects an 18-year-old voter as the first non-elite to address the country, a choice which competing political interests pounce upon, hoping to steer a highly impressionable, young person as they often do into being just another mouthpiece for their usual agendas. The best part of the story, however, is the fact that the teen speaker decides to strike out on his own and says how he really feels about America, not what the teleprompter or his handlers tell him to say.
Ruth: Do you think that today’s youth would be up to giving a speech of that magnitude, let alone resist the temptation of falling in line with authority figures?
de Gracia: In the story, the teenager chosen to give the State of the Union comes from Waipahu, right here in Hawaii. Part of the reason I selected that as the backdrop for the tale is that back in 2007 when the State Legislature sent me to present a certificate of commendation to a valedictorian at Waipahu High School, I was absolutely floored when I talked with their seniors and juniors behind the scenes about the things on their mind and their view of the future. There really is no word to describe them except to say they are geniuses. Today’s kids are smarter, more knowledgeable about the world and more bold in asserting their beliefs than I remember my people being back in 1997 when I was a high school senior. There’s a sincerity and a passion in today’s youth that has the potential to change America, so I definitely think that young people are up to the challenge of big responsibilities and wide open doors of opportunity.
The danger, however, is in the careerist temptation to do whatever it takes to get ahead. Lincoln said that any man can stand the test of adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. We see that now where a new member of Congress can basically get elected, be given a ride to D.C. on Air Force One, shown a little “taste” of elite life and, viola, suddenly they’re a robot for the Establishment. That’s an area that aspiring leaders can only triumph in through strong morals, the example of good parenting, and a choice to live by principle rather than passion alone.
Ruth: Getting back to President Obama’s real-life speech, what do you expect from his final State of the Union?
de Gracia: I think that this SOTU will basically be an attempt by Obama to claim victory on jobs, the economy, climate change, and the world after George W. Bush, which he will attempt to portray as having been improved and normalized since then. This is Obama’s Golden Globes … for himself. No matter what Obama says, however, Americans on both side of the aisle know that his presidency has been a disaster. As Donald Trump says, “we never win anymore.”
This isn’t Ronald Reagan giving a 1988 wrap-up where he can say “We’ve replaced ‘Blame America’ with ‘Look up to America’” and we’re hitting home runs across the board. Right now the world sees the United States in decline and they’re waiting for us to clock out. Nevertheless, Obama is going to spin things that America was better off under him than it was under Bush 43. He might even use this address as a bully pulpit to hit the Republican presidential candidates.
Ruth: Do you think that some things may have improved since George W. Bush was in office?
de Gracia: Most of the things that Obama will take credit for on Tuesday were things that would have improved no matter who was in office, Democrat or Republican. The economy isn’t as desperate or dire as it was in 2008, but a large part of that has to do with market correction, not bureaucratic action. The market interventions taken by Congress and the Federal Reserve in the wake of the banking crisis hurt the economy and skyrocketed the cost of living in ways that continue to plague us.
And with regard to employment, what’s the point of having a job if a sizeable chunk of your paycheck has to go to paying more on your mandatory health insurance or paying more for someone else’s Medicare? I know people who work just to pay the bills and have no money left for themselves. That’s not a success, that’s a nightmare.
Obama can say that he’s helped the environment in a big way, but I personally think many Sierra Club members would probably disagree with his environmental record over the last seven years.
And let’s not forget that war and massive strife at home and around the world cause more environmental detriment than monetizing future carbon emissions for the sake of Wall Street’s profits. What was the carbon impact of drone strikes during Obama’s presidency? Or what was the environmental impact of all the domestic riots and burning of cities we’ve seen as a result of this president’s divisive polices?
Furthermore, I’ve never seen a high income area look dirty or polluted. The more prosperous Americans get, the more pride they take in the stewardship of their environment and planet. Right now, Americans are in survival mode. They can’t focus on self-actualization or ivory tower pursuits of a utopian planet until they’ve got their families and personal finances under control.
The only “win” America has seen under Obama is a cultural shift where people want to be back in charge of their local communities again, and that is a result of the things D.C. has been doing wrong, not the things they’ve been doing right.
Ruth: What do you think about Obama’s approach to national security and defense, compared to the Bush Era?
de Gracia: I think that Russia and China served as a major wake-up call for the people behind the scenes advising both administrations. Before, there was a foolish belief that the U.S. only had to worry about insurgents and terrorists, and somehow Russia and China and the rest of the world would just stand in awe of us. As late as 2012 during the last presidential election that attitude still seemed to prevail. Now we have a situation where the U.S. military is having to re-adapt back to traditional deterrence and is thinking about counterforce credibility again. Again, this is more a result of the over-the-top initiative and aggression of America’s enemies, than the pro-active leadership of Congress or Obama.
Ruth: What should the Republicans talk about in their SOTU response?
de Gracia: Nikki Haley should emphasize first and foremost that the economy is still a disaster and that Obama has failed to deliver on his promises of reform. People don’t have to be Republicans to know that they’re still unemployed or that their insurance costs are going through the roof. That’s something that everyone knows, and America is looking for an opposition that can articulate the grief and frustration and even setbacks they’ve experienced since 2008.
I think the reason Trump is doing so well among Republicans in spite of his use of invectives is the fact that he keeps talking about the economy. People need to hear a strong opposition refuting Obama’s economic policies, reminding them of how often he went on vacation at taxpayer expense, when many of his own voters couldn’t even afford to put gas in their own cars let alone fly to Hawaii every year.
The next thing that Haley needs to talk about is individual liberty and freedom – but not in the context of Obama’s big government “equality” machine that he’ll be praising in his SOTU. The Republicans need to establish the fact that American liberty cannot survive if America is overrun by international terrorists or threatened into submission and surrender by nuclear enemies. Haley needs to make the American people aware of the fact that America is under siege and reassure them that the Republican majority is going to start leading from the front, with or without President Obama’s help.
I jokingly keep suggesting over the years since Rubio’s stint in 2013 that the Republicans should simply hire a professional actor to deliver their SOTU rebuttals for them, rather than using politicians who are, in effect, amateur actors. They should pay someone like Brian Cox or Powers Boothe to memorize a speech written by someone like Pat Buchanan and let the hilarity ensue.
Ruth: As a Republican house district chairman in Hawaii, you’re going to be part of the Republican action in this year’s presidential election as well, aren’t you? Are you supporting any candidates in particular this year?
de Gracia: I sure will. In fact, with our March 8 presidential caucus coming up, we definitely have a lot of work to do and very little time to get it done. As the Hawaii Republican Party’s chair for HD39 here in Hawaii, a lot of the effort will be focused on driving voters to register Republican and participate in the caucus because you can almost be certain that who the Republicans pick will be the next president of the United States. There are a lot of good candidates running in this year’s election, and already here in Hawaii there are strong, organized efforts for Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Donald Trump and others underway.
I’ve been getting a lot of text messages and phone calls from friends and close associates asking me to join a particular campaign or endorse a certain candidate, even people who I haven’t talked to in years, but this year I think it’s important just to get people to engage in the election, so I’m going to refrain from getting that close to any of the campaigns. As much as I like to criticize them all, there is also something to like about them all in some way or another.
I like Ted Cruz a lot and met him at CPAC 2010, and I think he’s got incredible social conservative values, not to mention as a movie aficionado I love his Princess Bride impressions. Marco Rubio reminds me of a 1970s policy realist with his views on nuclear counterforce credibility, and I like that about him, though I think he could stand to research his positions a little more by looking to the writings of men like Edward Luttwak or James Schlesinger, guys that were directly responsible for winning the Cold War behind the scenes. And Donald Trump, well, he’s probably the most enjoyable candidate because he barbeques all the GOP sacred cows with his non-stop use of invectives. I like them all, but again, probably won’t endorse during the primaries.