One of the more curious habits of humankind — one taken for granted and seldom commented upon — is the giving of a round of applause as a sign of enthusiasm. We the people can’t just sit still and glow when we hear something we like: We have to bang our paws together and make a clapping sound.
This is doubtless a very primitive instinct. One can imagine when Og first invented the wheel and our ancient forebears, not knowing how to express their joy, clapped their hands for the first time. I am guessing that this spontaneous applause really caught on when his brother, Thog, invented beer.
You’d think we would have progressed a little since cave-dwelling times. You’d think that higher life forms would have developed by now a better method of conveying approval.
For example, a finely bred race of superior beings wearing bow ties like columnist George F. Will might express their exuberance by humming quietly to themselves and later writing op-ed columns.
But no — all the black ties at a symphony gala will not stop a crowd from behaving like seals or chimpanzees with their clapping at the end of the performance and perhaps making “whoo-whoo” sounds to supplement their hand percussion.
I am reminded of our strange mammalian ways because the nation has just endured the annual State of the Applause speech on Capitol Hill.
When I say “endured,” I am not just reacting to the presence of our own Cave-Dweller-in-Chief making his farewell appearance. His remarks, delivered with little hint of nostalgia (yikes, perhaps he thinks he’s staying), were the same old platter of warmed-over, indigestible woolly mammoth that he’s been feeding the American tribe for seven years.
But I can’t blame this president exclusively because all the presidents in living memory have turned this ritual into something truly ridiculous, a clap-athon of state. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, if only because he was a great orator: Never in the field of human conversation was so much applauded by so many for so few reasons.
Yet they were saying on TV what a great American moment this is, how the president, any president, no matter how unpopular, is always greeted so warmly. As for me, I take no joy is seeing a whole chamber filled with pinheads posing as pinnipeds — the seals who in circuses put their flippers together and bark “whoo-whoo!” at every cold herring they are offered.
To be fair, some entertainment was provided in Monday night’s spectacle for those of us at home held prisoner by inertia on our sofas.
There was Dick Cheney, with his cunning little smile and his eyes darting about like an old lizard who looked ready to zap passing flies with his tongue — a temptation he kept under control. For her part, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at times looked as if she couldn’t resist the urge to feel the inside of her mouth with her tongue for an errant gum drop or perhaps a piece of spinach lodged in her teeth.
Best of all, there was Hillary Rodham Clinton, looking so dyspeptic that she appeared to be auditioning to win a cameo appearance in TV commercials for the little purple pill once her seedy husband manages to completely alienate the voters. Yes, between the shots of lawmakers apparently asleep or yawning, a few laughs were available.
I would like to say to the assembled participants: Give yourselves a round of applause for these accidental moments of levity, but I can’t because — darn it! — you would. Clearly, you people would have applauded a grocery list read out loud, which in many ways the president’s speech was, with its list of various items. It’s a wonder your fingerprints didn’t rub off with all that happy friction.
As always happens, new meaning was given to the words “standing ovation.” The tides in the Bay of Fundy don’t go up and down as much as our members of Congress did. If only for a night, we could solve the national energy crisis if we could attach their rising and descending posteriors to the electric grid.
Worse yet, they play a game of political applauding — look at us in our aisle, we are clapping the war on terror/lower taxes/greater widget production and you’re not. Wooh-wooh! The seals in the circus have more dignity.
It’s time for members of Congress to sit on their hands during this annual address. If the next president demands it, then I’ll applaud.
(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com.)