For Boehlert, State of the Union evokes 'a bit of nostalgia' but 'no sadness'

As he has after every State of the Union speech for the last quarter-century, former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R) called his wife Marianne at their home in New Hartford in upstate New York on Tuesday night.

"She reminded me that I have floor privileges and asked if I watched it from the floor of the House," Boehlert said Wednesday. "I told her, 'No, I watched it by myself in my apartment with a bowl of microwave popcorn and a diet Cola."

For Boehlert, the former chairman of the House Science Committee who retired last year after 24 years in Congress, it was a bittersweet moment that evoked "maybe a little bit of nostalgia but no sadness at all."

The 70-year-old Republican, now a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said he has no regrets that he is no longer part of what he called "the unreal spectacle" of the president's annual speech to Congress and the nation.

Boehlert said members "get caught up on the floor with the electricity, the applause, the special guests, the Supreme Court justices, the Joint Chiefs, the Cabinet members, the ambassadors, the members of the House and Senate.

"Sometimes," he said, "you just jump up and applaud because of the guy next to you or you look around to see if others are standing."

Boehlert attended his first State of the Union as a freshman in January 1983, when John McCormack (D-Mass) was Speaker. Since then, he's seen six more Speakers, including the newest and most historic one, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), sit behind four different presidents. He called Pelosi's ascension to the Speaker's chair "a historic moment," but added, "I would have preferred to see Speaker Hastert."

Boehlert said he asked his wife, a former Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill, for her reaction, as he always does. And while he said, "I'm not going to share it with you," he said his own reaction was that President Bush's speech "was rather flat. He didn't plow any new ground, although he did reach out with an olive branch to Democrats.

"I think he wanted to recognize reality and work with the majority, and he was very gracious to the new Speaker. But as for the speech - I didn't think there was a lot of 'there' there."

He added, "I'm a veteran of State of the Union speeches, and presidents almost always paint with a broad brush and put things in the most optimistic terms, and that's understandable. Some are better than others at delivery. But you need more than eloquent words and have to look to see if they're followed by meaningful deeds in the budget message."

To illustrate his point, Boehlert recalled that he met with Josh Bolten, then head of the Office of Management and Budget, at the White House on Dec. 6, 2005, to make a pitch for greater investment in basic research and in science and math education. 

"I had a mushroom omelet in the White House Mess and I was accompanied by [Reps.] Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who was chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee [on research and development] and Dr. Vern Ehlers (R-Mich.), the senior member of my committee, and we were all on the same page.

"Bolten told us we had made a good case but he said, 'Where will we get the money?' I said, 'There's an odd-shaped building across the Potomac where they spend more on coffee for breakfast. They've got a $500 billion budget and we're talking about a few billion more for something that's critical for our national security.'"

Immediately afterwards, Boehlert and his colleagues went to the Commerce Department, where he was sponsoring a summit meeting on innovation and competitiveness. "We had captains of industry and five Cabinet officers and we spend the whole day talking about innovation and what we needed to make us more competitive," he said.

Then, the day of the State of the Union the following month, Boehlert said three of the Cabinet members called him and "said I would be happy with the speech. So I was sitting there just waiting when the president announced the American Competitiveness Initiative," a plan to double funding for innovation and science and math education.

"We … had big smiles on our faces," Boehlert said. The House and Senate approved funding for the plan, "but we ended the year with a continuing resolution and no appropriations, so we're back to square one."

Boehlert said he's optimistic the new Congress will support the American Competitiveness Initiative, even though the president didn't mention it in his speech Tuesday.

Asked what his most memorable State of the Union was, Boehlert cited President George H. W. Bush's speech in 1990. "We had a good personal relationship. When he was vice president, he came to my district twice and I was very proud to say he is a personal friend."

When Bush finished his speech and left the rostrum, he spotted Boehlert and exchanged a few words with him. "A photographer captured the scene - the president of the United States engaged in a conversation with this congressman from upstate New York, surrounded by some of the most important people in America." Boehlert hung the prized photo in his office and it's now in his home in New York.

Boehlert was interviewed as he sat in his office at the Woodrow Wilson Center on Pennsylvania Avenue. He had a half-eaten sandwich in front of him and had just finishing writing a syllabus for a course he will teach at on public policy at the Boston University Washington program.

Boehlert has spent much of his time since the election helping many of the 31 Republican Science Committee staffers and 22 people in his personal office find jobs. Most of the former have found jobs under the new chairman, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), whom he called "a real class act," and five of the latter were hired by his successor, Democrat Michael Arcuri.

Boehlert said he doesn't feel any "melancholy" about missing his first State of the Union speech in 24 years, nor does he regret his decision to announce last March 17 that he was not going to run again.

"I was afraid that I might ask myself a couple of weeks later why I had done that, and I was convinced as recently as last July that we were going to keep the majority," he said. "But I've never looked back. I've been very pleased with my decision."