A night at the SOTUS

View from the gallery: My trip to the State of the Union

The House chamber, where the president delivers his address, is a lot smaller than you might think. Probably just somewhat larger than a high school gym, it manages to fit the leaders of the entire nation, plus some registered guess and the press corps – and of course myself.

I took the metro to the Capitol South stop nearby. Everyone had to enter via the Canon, building. This building is one of three the House of Representatives uses for hearings, meetings and office space. Congress had long ago outgrown the space within the main building, so six more – three for the house, and three for the senate – were built to handle the ever growing business of governing an ever growing nation.

Now, all these buildings are connected via underground walkways, and even a small tram. The streets above were blocked off for security purposes, while the tunnels below were filled with a myriad of security.

My press pass came in handy, as I skipped line after line of people whose overflow tickets were quickly rejected – the place was going to be full.

I find my way through tunnels, hallways and plenty of Capitol Hill staff.

Reporters work on stories toward the end of the State of the Union   speech.
Reporters work on stories toward the end of the State of the Union speech.

I finally get to the periodical press room, which handles state of the union credentials. He asks for my ID and after showing it to him, said I would probably get standing room only – which was fine with me. I hang out with other journalists in the room for a while.

I overhear one of them:

“Is it going to be candidate Obama or President Obama?” one asked.

But after some waiting we all get our tickets.

With my press pass I was able to qualify for standing room only, in the back of the third row in the press gallery right above the president. But in reality, only 30 feet away. The few credentialed photographers get to sit in the gallery directly facing the president, and a very few manage to be on the floor, taking pictures from a foot or two away.

The gavel makes a cracking noise – like a baseball bat against a ball. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi begins to list the names of the
congressional leadership. Eventually the recitation is finished, and as the clock ticks past 9 p.m., some people talk about the length of the speech.

“I hear it’s going to be long this year.”

“Yeah, the over under on the speech is 55 minutes.”

Others wonder how the order of the entrance of the cabinet members is determined. Is it by order of succession?

Someone: “All I know is that the president on Battlestar Galactica was the education secretary and she was 40th in line for the presidency.”

Someone else: “That’s just what I was thinking.”

Yet Another: “What is Gates (Defense Secretary) saying right now?”

First Person: “Gates is saying we’re getting $700 billion at defense next year so suck it.”

President Obama enters, and people reach for his hand, others stand and clap, and the President walks to his podium, and out of my view.
55 Minutes later.

After the State of the Union speech, what many people don’t see is the giant collective press mob that gathers in Statuary hall for post speech interviews. It’s a mob of people – the red carpet line at the Oscars. Reporters, photographers, producers and equipment people mass around various politicians, others strain with audio recorders and some use pen and paper.

It’s a huge mess, but everyone seems to be used to it.
I help lift a photographer over the crowd so she can get a shot. I take a picture of someone I know for posterity. I get him to take a picture of myself.

Eventually, people start clearing out. The attention has gone from the speech to potential reactions and instant polling, and some people – who have filed one or two stories already, will file a third before the night is out.