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Hollow Hall

In his response to Obama, Gov. Bob McDonnell oversteps protocol by turning the House of Delegates into political theater.

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Savvy political theater can inspire. Ronald Reagan soared in Berlin when he demanded: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Years later, with the thermometer at 7 degrees, Barack Obama announced his presidential run in Springfield. He used the old Illinois statehouse as a symbolic link between the great liberator, Lincoln, and his own journey and ambitions.

Those spine-tingling moments are indelible.

And then there's Gov. Bob McDonnell's overproduced Republican response to the president's State of the Union address on Jan. 27. That speech, McDonnell's political debut to a huge national audience, was delivered from the Virginia House of Delegates' chamber. The elegant room was filled with functionaries and party faithful. Was McDonnell attempting to convey a mini-State of the Union?

Inspiring? I don't think so. Memorable? Yes, and for all the wrong reasons. Two weeks after the event, it still resonates as pretentious, embarrassing and as frivolous as an operetta. 

For those who missed the nascent governor's Republican response and first stab at 15 minutes of fame, it's not so much what he said (Who can argue with lower taxes and creating jobs?). It was the setting that was inappropriate and overreaching. This should have been a simple response to the evening's major policy speech, which had been delivered in Washington.

When Gov. Tim Kaine gave the opposition's response to the State of the Union some years ago he delivered a fireside chat from the Executive Mansion. Last year, Louisiana's Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal was ridiculed for his deer-in-the-headlights response, but the tight camera shot was hardly overreaching.

To appropriate the House of Delegates chamber for a non-Virginia political event was inappropriate. The Clintons may have pimped out the Lincoln bedroom, but at least they lived in the house. The Virginia legislature has protocols. The House of Delegates' rule No. 82 reads: “The Hall of the House of Delegates shall be used for no other purpose than the sessions of the House and for meetings of the legislature on public affairs except by vote of the House or Rules Committee or with the approval of the Speaker when the House is not in session.” Speaker William Howell, in granting permission, apparently got a little happy.

The seating arrangements were reconfigured — maybe for the first time in the room's 105-year history, so that McDonnell loyalists were looking over his shoulder. An Asian man and an African-American woman were strategically planted behind the governor where the national and state flags are usually displayed. This bit of political correctness wasn't lost on the half-dozen friends with whom I watched the proceedings: “Yeah, right, we're sure that's reflective of who's sitting in the chamber,” they erupted. Television audiences barely got to see who was in the room because the camera remained focused mostly on the governor.

Viewers got to see his family, but that's about it. The governor began his remarks by referencing his two sons, who were beaming. And later he gave a shout-out to his daughter, Jeanine, a veteran of Iraq. If you're going to feature poster children for causes, why not draw from a wider pool? Wouldn't a female veteran from far-flung Accomac or Abingdon have delivered greater political dividends? The hometown pride — and political gain — would have resonated for months at having been featured in so widely broadcast a moment.

In the end it came off as looking all about him and not so much about the Republicans, Virginia or the nation. John Edwards, Eliott Spitzer and Mark Sanford offer recent cautionary tales about believing one's own press.

I wish the new governor well, but when it comes to extracurricular activities, let's reserve our hallowed halls for such high holy days as addresses by special guests — an occasional monarch, prime minister or Nobel laureate. Or, if the General Assembly is out of town, rent it to Hollywood. Kevin Kline once was filmed there playing a president in “Dave.” At least they'd be paying customers. The General Assembly should bill the National Republican Party for rental.

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