By Russell Berman - 01/29/14 12:21 AM EST
Cory Remsburg stole the show at Tuesday’s State of the Union address.
President Obama’s tribute to the Army Ranger who was severely wounded on his 10th deployment to Afghanistan brought the entire House chamber to its feet, offering a bipartisan ovation far longer and stronger than for any of the president’s proposals.
Lawmakers chatting on the House floor and awaiting the arrival of dignitaries stopped to applaud as the uniformed Remsburg, blind in one eye and with only partial use of his left side, struggled down a handful of steep steps to his seat in the front row of the House gallery in first lady Michelle Obama’s box.
Few in the chamber knew exactly for whom they were applauding, but they would learn Remsburg’s wrenching story more than an hour later from Obama.
The president first met Remsburg on the 65th anniversary of the World War II invasion of Normandy. Four months later, a roadside bomb in Kandahar left him in a coma for three months, and when Obama first visited him in the hospital, he “couldn’t speak [and] could barely move.”
After dozens of surgeries and years of rehabilitation, he can speak and walk again.
“Like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit,” Obama said, as Republicans, Democrats and even the stoic justices of the Supreme Court rose from their seats.
He quoted Remsburg as saying that, while his recovery has been difficult, “nothing in life that’s worth anything is easy.”
The president highlighted Remsburg’s story as a call for national perseverance, telling a polarized Congress that “men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy.”
It was a fitting theme, as Obama spoke to a Congress that has often shunned his agenda in recent years. With even lower expectations for action in an election year, the president offered perhaps the most modest legislative program of his presidency.
While Democrats stood again and again as the president defended his healthcare law, pushed for an increase in the minimum wage and new spending in education and infrastructure, the most Obama could extract from Republicans was polite applause for his calls for corporate tax reform, an immigration overhaul and fast-track trade authority.
Before the speech, several Republicans made no effort to hide that they were more excited at the chance to meet “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson — a guest of Rep. Vance McAllister (R-La.) — than they were to hear another speech from a president they have mostly tuned out.
Other than Remsburg, lawmakers saved their biggest ovation for one of their own, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), after Obama lauded “the son of a barkeeper” as a testament to the American Dream.
When Obama turned to face him, a beet-red Boehner flashed a thumbs-up and, looking like he was about to cry, stood to receive the applause. Republicans got to their feet more slowly when the president offered a tribute to his single mother in the next line of the speech.
A pop culture reference to the hit show “Mad Men” in a call to modernize workplace rights for women drew laughter and applause from Democrats, and chants of “USA! USA!” rang out when Obama predicted the U.S. Olympic team would bring home the gold — and demonstrate its support for gay rights — in next month’s games in Sochi, Russia.
But the speech, and the evening, belonged to the Purple Heart recipient in the first lady’s box.
Minutes after the applause for Obama died down, and the president made his way out of the chamber, the remaining members and guests began to clap again and look to the gallery. With help from his father, Remsburg was making his way back up the steps.