Drama of the State of the Union, with a reality-TV side show

Updated 9:19 a.m.

For a few moments before the State of the Union address on Tuesday night, it looked like a reality television star might upstage the president.

The evening's festivities began around 8:20 p.m., when someone turned on 15 sets of theatrical floodlights hanging from the ceiling of the House Chamber, transforming the usually dimly-lit chamber into a television sound stage, with supporting characters awaiting the arrival of the leading actor.


At top, from left, "Duck Dynasty" stars Korie and Willie Robertson listen to the speech. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Almost immediately, anyone looking down on the House Chamber noticed the brighter colors. The main reason? There were more women than usual in the chamber. While many wore the traditional (politically safe?) red, others sported brighter hues of orange, yellow, pink and purple.

Across the room, lawmakers of different parties, genders and chambers sat together locked in conversation, or perhaps just hopeful that they'd be spotted together. Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) -- leading advocates for immigration reform -- chatted. Nearby, Reps. Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) -- two of the youngest members of Congress -- sat together amid a sea of Republicans. Off to one side, a quartet of presidential wannabes and coulda-beens -- Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- sat in a row. McCain frequently whispered and snickered to Gillibrand and Rubio, who smiled politely. At the other end of the room, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) sat alongside his brother, Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), for the final time at a State of the Union speech. The senator is retiring after this year, and the brothers have made a habit of sitting with each other to watch several presidents address Congress.

A few lawmakers made bolder attempts to get noticed. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.) climbed the steps of the speaker's rostrum to chat up House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). Manchin, a former governor, is accustomed to addressing legislative bodies. But not this one. And he stepped away just in time for the arrival of other guests.

Five of the nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court entered the room to applause. Chief Justice John Roberts was followed by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

Last year Ginsberg caused a stir by appearing to nod off for an extended period of time during President Obama's State of the Union address as she dropped her head low toward her lap. She did it again this year. And once again, Breyer, seated to her left, worked to help keep her head aloft. At one point he whispered into Ginsberg's ear, which caused her to prop up and acknowledge him. Later, Breyer lightly touched Ginsberg's left thigh. That also caught her attention.

Elsewhere, eagle-eyed viewers might have seen lawmakers wearing teal-colored ribbons on their lapel. They were the idea of Sandy Levin, who is part of an ongoing push by Democrats to extend federal unemployment insurance and was one of several lawmakers who invited an unemployed constituent to attend the speech. And why were the ribbons teal? No reason, an aide said. Levin just randomly chose the color.

Many in the room followed Obama's comments on printed copies of his remarks. The hundreds of lawmakers turning pages of the text sounded like churchgoers turning the pages of a Sunday missal.

The text gives a hint at when the audience should clap or keep quiet, and throughout the evening, applause broke out along predictable partisan lines. When Obama threatened to take executive actions in the face of congressional inaction, Democrats cheered and Republicans mostly sat silent. But when he mentioned first lady Michelle Obama, the room stood and cheered. Later, Obama recalled Boehner's humble origins, and lawmakers shot to their feet. But within moments, Obama declared that "Climate change is a fact" -- and some Republicans sat stone-faced.

Anyone glancing ahead in the text could easily anticipate the night's emotional high point, and sure enough, Obama held the attention of the room as he recalled the service and sacrifice of Army 1st Sgt. Cory Remsburg. The veteran, who had entered the room to a standing ovation before the speech, beamed as Obama spoke about him. He turned to his right to look at his father, Craig Remsburg, then to his left to Michelle Obama, who joined him in giving a thumbs-up.

As Obama's story about Remsburg reached a crescendo, the entire House chamber stood to applaud. Even the stoic Supreme Court justices rose to their feet. Near them, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), partially paralyzed from a stroke, banged his cane on the House floor in approval.

And what about that reality-TV star?

Well, Capitol Hill had buzzed for most of Tuesday with word that Rep. Vance McAllister (R-La.) had persuaded Willie Robertson, star of "Duck Dynasty," to come to Washington. Robertson entered the House Chamber with his wife, Korie, around 8 p.m. and quickly began signing autographs. Several lawmakers approached, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who eagerly posed for a photo.

During the speech, Robertson sat listening, sometimes sitting back in his seat appearing tired.

As Obama completed his remarks and exited the House chamber, he shook hands with several lawmakers. Quickly, McAllister darted into the clutch, pointed up in the direction of Robertson and asked the president to wave.

In that moment, Obama -- the nation's most recognizable politician -- waved in the direction of Robertson -- an increasingly familiar TV figure. And one of the nation's most time-honored episodes of political theater drew to a close.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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