Monica Hesse: The exquisite rudeness of Nancy Pelosi at the State of the Union

President Donald Trump turns to House speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., as he delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, as Vice President Mike Pence watches, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (Doug Mills/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

The lasting visual image from Tuesday night’s State of the Union address was captured by photographer Doug Mills. It featured House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., applauding President Donald Trump in a way that can only be described as ... withering? Pitying? Lucille Bluth-like in its contemptuousness?

At his lectern, the president mentioned bipartisanship and turned to acknowledge Speaker Pelosi; she rewarded him by cocking her head, arching an eyebrow, and inventing, as comedian Patton Oswalt would put it online, a clap that somehow managed to be a profanity.

Its power was in its restraint. Pelosi was not booing the president. She was acknowledging his words. She was providing him, in the technical sense, with exactly what he was hoping for: approval. But this was a derogatory clap, make no mistake. This was mockery wearing a half-baked costume of politeness.

The State of the Union is, by definition, a solo act: Its entire purpose is for the president to address Congress uninterrupted for as long as he or she pleases, which in this case was a little less than 90 minutes. An hour-and-a-half is a long time for the opposing party to have no rejoinder. Pelosi, who was seated behind the president's left shoulder and consistently in the camera's lens, sidestepped that issue by making her entire face a silent, screaming rejoinder.

Her lips mostly remained either pursed or puckered, as if the entire speech was a bit of gristle that must be endured before it could be discreetly spit into a napkin. She shuffled papers in front of her - print-outs of Trump's speech, one presumes - as if marking time for when it would all be over. Her applause was sparing, weary, and had the distinct vibe of a parent applauding a kindergartner for tying his shoes when the only goal is to quickly scoot him out the door.

Often, she was - and you may love this about her behavior, or absolutely detest it - bordering on rude.

But she was not passive. From her perch, she wordlessly commanded not only her portion of the camera but also the throngs of Democrat representatives seated in her eyeline. At one point, deciding they were too unruly, she casually raised her right hand and quieted them with a subtle motion.

A few minutes later, as the president acknowledged the unprecedented number of newly elected women in Congress, Pelosi motioned for the first-term Congresswomen to stand and be recognized. When they moved, it was monochromatically - many had chosen to wear white, honoring suffragettes who secured women's voting rights a century ago.

Seated in a block, these representatives were their own silent, attention-grabbing rejoinder. Their homogenous clothing palette made their movements all the more noticeable. Most of the time, they sat in stony, synchronized silence, as when the president spoke of restricting abortion.

But on a few occasions, they stood. They stood when Pelosi encouraged them to, but they also stood when Trump announced (falsely, it turns out) that America "had more women in the workforce than ever before."

"You weren't supposed to do that," he said, chiding them for unexpectedly cheering at a moment he hadn't anticipated.

No, they weren't. The attention was to have been on him. This was to have been an uninterrupted performance.

But instead, Nancy Pelosi clapped for the president, and a group of Congresswomen sat for the president, and they both displayed the art of stealing someone’s thunder without saying anything at all.

Monica Hesse | The Washington Post

Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section and author of “American Fire.”