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From the Press Gallery: State of the Union 2013

by Andrew Doolittle, published


WASHINGTON -- Receiving a copy of President Obama’s State of the Union address seconds before delivery would be anticlimactic for those in attendance and watching from home, but it was just the opposite for the press Tuesday night.

“EMBARGOED UNTIL DELIVERY,” the 13-page speech read across the top, something the White House Press materials usually state in such occasions.

Over a hundred print, photo, and social media journalists crowded in the steamy House Press room exchanging contacts and ranting off-the-record hours before the event waited for that moment. They shuffled page-after-page in search for particular moments the speech might ignite a strong reaction among those seated in the chamber.

With only a few minutes to read a speech delivered over the next hour, the president would take his position in front of the vice president and the speaker at the rostrum below the House Press Gallery.

By that time, the press, mostly the photographers, also had to become familiar with the seating arrangements to connect an issue with a politician. This meant predicting particular issues that the president may address, like immigration and gun control.

There was a clear view of where eyes wandered and how these reactions could be gauged from the Press Gallery. Members of Congress and the rest of the audience faced the press as they were the eyes behind the president’s shoulder.

The First Lady, her guests, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, parents of a slain Chicago teen Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton and Nathaniel A. Pendleton Sr, and 102-year-old Desiline Victor. Other dignitaries like former Arizona House Representative Gabrielle Giffords, her husband, and super PAC were present too. All of them sat on the top left galleries.

What couldn’t be seen or felt from the cameras that were focused on President Obama was the extreme politics from both parties.

Some conservative lawmakers were quite selective on a night filled with standing ovations for Obama’s progressive calls on preschool education and minimum wage. However, what stood out the most was when the president addressed gun violence.

“They deserve a vote,” he said several times, aligning each victim as a lost vote in a country that finds pride in its democratic foundations. “Gabby Giffords deserves a vote.”

Ted Nugent, a conservative rock musician and outspoken board member for the National Rifle Association, was just across the room.

At that time, the physically frail and rehabilitating Giffords stood from her chair and held hands with her husband for an entire eight minutes until the president’s speech concluded, even as the rest of the chamber took their seats. Cheered on by fellow lawmakers who yelled, "VOTE!" Giffords' strength was, perhaps, one of the most overlooked statements made that night. She didn’t even say a word.

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