There were more than 50 rounds of applause during Tuesday night’s State of the Union address. One was different. It didn’t start with an applause line; it built gradually, as members noticed a woman in an orange suit by the side door.
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) walked slowly to her seat and offered a wave. The claps became cheers, and the cheers built to a roar.
And the joint session of Congress actually felt, for a few moments, like a gathering of co-workers.
Giffords, who was shot in the head a year ago at a constituent event in Tucson, was making one of her last appearances as a member of Congress. She announced she would resign from the House this week to focus on her recovery from the near-fatal wound.
Her appearance was an emotional high point on a night when Congress and President Obama seemed to be trying new roles.
The president tested some ideas — even some phrases, such as an “all of the above” energy policy — used by his Republican adversaries. And members of Congress, after a year of division and inaction, seemed to be at least pretending they could get along.
For the second year in a row, a smattering of Republicans and Democrats sat in pairs — “dates,” they called themselves.
Some pairings were predictable — Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), the ideologically similar senators who already work closely together as leaders of the homeland security committee.
Other couples came together at the last minute. Just before the big entrance, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a 25-year veteran, realized his “date” was missing.
He spotted Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) as she arrived late. McCain started waving and waving. She didn’t see him.
McCain nudged a much taller colleague, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and got him to wave Hagan down. She hustled into line next to McCain, and the Senate began its march.
Other pairings showed Congress at its most human. Giffords was accompanied by Rep. Jeff Flake (R), a fellow Arizonan from the opposite side of the ideological spectrum. Flake helped Giffords to her seat and seemed to be pointing out other people to her, as the long procession of justices and senators and Cabinet secretaries made its way in.
Across the room, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) sat next to an empty chair.
The seat was for Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a close friend of Manchin’s who won Obama’s old seat in 2010. Kirk suffered a stroke over the weekend and is likely to miss several months of congressional work as he recuperates. Doctors have said they are not sure how much mobility he will recover on the left side of his body. The news shook many in the Senate, as Kirk — a 52-year-old officer in the Naval Reserve — has been the picture of health in the Senate.
After the crowd settled and Obama began to speak, it was obvious that sharp divisions remained between the two parties.
There were at least seven bipartisan standing ovations — for the death of Osama bin Laden, for the troops who fought in Iraq, for the right of women to equal pay.
But many other times, it was mainly Democrats standing up to clap for Obama’s rhetorical points. The only time that Republicans stood up first was when Obama mentioned the “all of the above” energy policy.
Watching it all from a box above was astronaut Mark Kelly, Giffords’s husband, who sat next to first lady Michelle Obama. As the ritual of the State of the Union night began, Kelly had watched from that perch as wave after wave of dignitaries came in.
He clapped and talked to Obama. But then, time after time, his gaze would return to a woman in orange, sitting on the House floor for perhaps the last time.