I’ve been confused five or six times now for a legislative staffer, to whom I apparently bear a striking resemblance. It’s happened in various bars, in the elevator, and even by mine own boss, who called me by said staffer’s name and immediately realized his mistake. I’d hoped for journalistic anonymity – the ability to slip from situation to situation without getting noticed – and instead, I’ve gotten this, which is maybe the next best thing.
It reminds me of the scene in Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho,” where Bateman gets confused for different executives in his Wall Street firm – Ellis wrote this as a means of illustrating the surface level and transitory nature of life in the Reagan 80s. In my case, it means there’s another guy in the Capitol who’s blonde, tall, and wears glasses.
Monday night was Governor Mike Dunleavy’s (R – Alaska) annual State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature. I was in attendance, in cramped press seating. The angle from the press area to the Speaker’s dais is designed so that there’s a large wooden support column squarely in between the governor and myself, so the whole time Dunleavy was speaking, I had to imagine he was up there. A disembodied voice floated through the House chambers as I craned my neck, trying to catch a glimpse of the big guy himself.
As for the speech itself, the State of the State wasn’t all that groundbreaking. It occupied the same space that most executive speeches do, where the political theater is on full display and the achievements of the administration are hyped up to full effect. And really, that’s fine – sometimes you gotta take a victory lap for 45 minutes or so. Everyone’s done an analysis of this speech, and most of them are accompanied with a raised-eyebrow smug fact check, so I shan’t take up any more space with my own interpretation.
I would, however, love to discuss Big Mike going off script. I got a copy of the governor’s speech ahead of time, which was embargoed until after the State of the State was over, and in theory, it was supposed to end shortly after the governor introduced Representative Josiah Patkotak’s (I – Utqiagvik) family. Instead, Dunleavy went off for a few minutes about the pro-life movement, arguing that we needed to make Alaska the most “pro-life state in the entire country.”
You could almost hear the Twitterati lose their collective minds.
Rather than focusing strictly on abortion, Dunleavy kept this epilogue to the speech intentionally opaque, putting forward a people-centric message. “I like people,” the governor said, “and we need more people in Alaska.” It was, I think, Dunleavy’s way of trying to tie the pro-life movement in with broader appeals for social reform in the state. “I like people” means a lot of things, and it’s uncharitable to assume that it was strictly about abortion. But it’d also be simple-minded to the point of complete illiteracy to assume that it wasn’t about abortion either.
With that said, Senator Cathy Giessel’s (R – Anchorage) response during the post-speech Senate majority press conference was carefully chosen, when questioned whether she thought Dunleavy would be rolling back abortion protections. Giessel thought the governor would be in support of a constitutional amendment that would outlaw or curtail abortions, but she “personally would not” be in favor of it.
In this sense, Dunleavy’s last minute off-script add-on was like a shred of actual policy at the core of a vast superstructure of executive fluff. Again, there’s nothing wrong with fluff – and at points, there were some genuinely informative moments – but, at the risk of repeating myself, the State of the State/Union/ has never really been a venue for advancing serious policy, or trying to actually communicate your plans for the coming year with legislators and voters.
Dunleavy’s “pro-people” message was, in some small way, a doorway into what the governor actually wants.
Juneau (and, I suspect, most other state and country capitals) is a town where policies, for the most part, are advanced cautiously, behind closed doors and cloaked behind legislative language that renders them virtually inaccessible to the layperson. So when a legislator comes along and explains something in plain, accessible terms, it comes across as one of two things.
The first is something with which we’re eminently familiar – the public meltdown. Think Representative Dan Saddler’s (R – Eagle River) “It’s worse than Pearl Harbor!” proclamation, former Senator Natasha von Imhof’s “fishbowl” rant, or any given number of Anchorage Assembly meetings. It’s accessible, it’s obvious – but it’s unhinged. At least we know what they’re thinking, if you filter through all the expletives.
The second is more in line with what Dunleavy did on Monday – an (I assume) off-script, semi-improvised expression of something fairly controversial that the governor actually wants to happen. It’s already raised the hackles of any number of keyboard warriors, and in the next few months, it’s doubtful as to how far his message will get within the House and Senate. But at least, may I remind you, it was honest.
This sort of disconnected screed about the political New Sincerity is a little off-brand for everyone’s favorite roving columnist, but I figured another column about going drinking was going to come off as a little stale.
The code word today is “horseradish.” Thank you to everyone who pulled me aside to furtively whisper “bababooey” – you all proved my point.