In the dark with the swirling snow, I couldn’t tell you where we were or what door we entered, but the light in the hallway was shockingly bright and the hall was lined with men talking into their sleeves, watching everyone. No smiling. Very serious. Very efficient. Coats were hung, purses and cell phones left behind. No cameras allowed. (None of us were happy about that.) Efficiently we were taken by elevator to the upper floor that led to the viewers boxes and escorted to our seats. The First Lady’s box holds 24 seats. The rest of the large circular balcony holds more seats for others with invitations from their Congressional representatives. It was packed and buzzing in a rare “we’re expecting the President” manner.
The House chamber is divided down the middle, Republicans to the President’s left and Democrats to his right. As Congressional leaders made their way inside, we could look down, recognizing our own representatives plus those big names we see on the Sunday morning talk shows. Kyrsten Sinema, one of our AZ Congresswomen who also serves on Gina’s Team’s Leadership Council, saw me and waved from the floor. Was I really in the First Lady’s box or was I dreaming?
The Supreme Court justices entered, very solemn and dignified, dressed in their black court robes. They don’t smile, neither do they ever stand or applaud for anything the president says. I think it’s some kind of protocol. The same with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in full uniform with all the glory of their decorations. No smiling, standing or applauding.
In our box, we were buzzing too. I was sitting next to Mark Luttrell, Republican Mayor of Shelby Country Tennessee (see, they are bipartisan) and a former BOP warden. Mark has a pretty progressive reputation in the world of corrections and I was picking his brain. Right in front of me was Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft. I talked to him about computer labs in prisons and he was very supportive of the idea although it horrifies traditionalist. Everyone in the box had a story and a vested interest in the President’s speech, but two of my favorites were Earl Smith and Edith Childs. They were just darling human beings. You can read about all of the guests on the WH blog: https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2016/01/10/meet-guests-first-ladys-2016-state-union-box
When Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden entered the box, we knew it was time. Then the House sergeant at arms announced those eight famous words, “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States.” The President entered the chamber and began the walk towards the podium shaking hands all along the way.
In our box suddenly four white square padded cushions appeared and were passed down the four steps. It’s not a huge box and no space goes unoccupied. These are for staffers. Believe it or not, Valerie Jarrett, Special Advisor to the President, sat down on the step at the end of our aisle right next to Mark Luttrell which allowed us the opportunity to talk. Mrs. Jarrett is considered one of the most important people in the White House and there she was, sitting with perfect posture on a cushion in the aisle of our box. I asked her how she could define her time working in the White House. She smiled a lovely smile. “It’s the most important and exciting thing of my entire life,” she paused, “except for the birth of my daughter. Nothing can compare to that.”
While we chatted and watched the President make his way to the podium, everyone was clapping and smiling, while those close to the center aisle were maneuvering to shake his hand. It was very collegial and they seemed like they actually liked each other. It looked. . . hopeful.
Then the President started talking and it was hard to ignore the conduct of the Congress. As much as we hear how divided our congress is, when you are looking down at it physically and symbolically, it’s stunning. There’s an invisible line right down the middle of that historic, important chamber.
As he often does, the President started out with humor and then got down to the issues. https://www.whitehouse.gov/sotu (You can see the entire address here.) He would say something and the right side of the chamber (Dems) would stand up and loudly applaud; the left side (Reps) of the chamber was silent. When he asked these questions below they sounded like questions I’ve heard all my friends express, conservative or progressive, yet half the room cheered while the other half was looking at their email or Facebook.
- First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy? (Applause & silence.)
- Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us — especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change? (Applause & silence.)
- Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman? (Applause & silence.)
- And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst? (Applause & silence.)
Yes, I said Facebook. Remember I mentioned we all had to leave our phones behind? Not our representatives. They all had their cellphones and iPads; we watched them from above as they checked email, caught up on Facebook or their social media of choice. Obviously I’m old school. My parents would have killed me (figuratively speaking), if I’d gone to hear a president speak (any president) and not minded my manners and paid attention. Here were our elected officials from our Senate and House of Representatives, and many were simply rude. Or maybe they weren’t. Maybe that’s OK in this world of technology, but I hope not. They say politics is an ugly business and it keeps getting worse. Does it have to be? Is this who we are as human beings, as Americans? Our elected officials are the role models for our children and I don’t think we’d let our children behave that way.
Never has an hour rushed by so quickly. The President’s final words were “Thank you, God bless you. God bless the United States of America” and it was over. We were already standing to applaud and as we stood, the cushions disappeared, the aisle cleared and our security detail was waiting for us. Mrs. Jarrett had slipped out, Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden then led the way for the rest of us. There were twenty three Americans in that box who will never forget that evening. And there was still more to come. . .