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OP-ED: Pelosi brought 'Jerry Maguire,' ‘Thelma and Louise’ and all our favorite rule-breakers to life

Heidi Stevens
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., tears her copy of President Donald Trump's State of the Union address after he delivered it to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

As a political strategy, I’m not sure Nancy Pelosi tearing up her copy of President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech worked all that well.

As political theater? It was fantastic.

And maybe that’s what she believed this particular moment in history called for.

Will it be used against her? Of course. It already is. She’s being accused, from both sides, of failing to exercise decorum, behaving unpatriotically, throwing a tantrum, tossing civility out the window, stooping to Trump’s level, distracting from the Democrats’ message, handing Republicans an easy, flashy talking point.

But she also struck a nerve. She also inspired a #NancyPelosiROCKS hashtag and 1,000 memes and a gif for the ages.

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There was something so satisfying, so delicious, so validating in watching her every measured movement. The rising from her seat. The straightening of the papers. The tearing. More straightening. More tearing. More tearing. More straightening. More tearing.

It was Jerry Maguire’s mission statement, copied and bound for all of his co-workers.

It was “Thelma and Louise’s” Thelma telling off Darryl from a phone booth on the dusty trail to freedom.

It was Andy throwing her cell phone into a fountain in Paris in “The Devil Wears Prada.”

It was Elizabeth Warren, nevertheless persisting.

It was Michelle Obama saying “that s—doesn’t work all the time” about Sheryl Sandberg’s lean in edict.

It was a moment when our protagonist knows the rules, has played by those rules, has propped up those rules and has, in the heat of the moment, decided those rules are a bunch of malarkey.

It was our protagonist deciding those rules are not taking us where we need to go. Those rules are, in fact, holding us — me, you, humanity — back. It would be a violation of all that’s good and holy to continue living under those rules.

A lot of us have dreamed of being that protagonist.

Does it all work out in the end? Depends on your definition of “work out.” Depends what you count as a victory.

Jerry Maguire got fired (but found true love and his own soul), and Thelma drove off a cliff (but blissfully away from Darryl, accompanied by her best friend in the world, and having slept with J.D., played by Brad Pitt). Their freedom was, in part, their downfall. But it was still freedom.

Real life is trickier, as Warren and Obama will attest. Who knows whether Pelosi’s speech-shredding will hurt or help the Democrats in November. Who’s to say that question even entered her mind. She may not have been thinking about her party. She may have been thinking about her platform. And she may have decided that, in that moment, she was going to use that platform to make her particular feelings about this particular president and that particular speech loud and clear.

Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican who yelled “You lie!” at President Barack Obama during a 2009 joint session of Congress, made a similar decision. Let’s not pretend those vaunted halls haven’t played host to incivility before. That very evening, in fact, President Trump refused to shake the hand Pelosi extended him.

Pelosi shredding that speech spoke to something both timeless and timely — our need to draw a line and refuse to normalize the chaos around us, even when we feel powerless to contain it. Some of us feel that in our families. Some of us feel it in our politics. Some of us feel it in our workplaces. Some of us want to rise to our feet and straighten the documents we’ve been handed and then tear them to shreds in front of the stunned audience gathered in our office conference room.

On Tuesday night, Pelosi was our protagonist. And she was also a lot of us. I don’t know what happens next, but that moment was something beautiful.