State of the symbolism: Speech guests help put human faces on rhetoric

February 13, 2013

There was a teacher who’d survived three gunshot wounds. A congresswoman who’d lived through an assassination attempt. The grieving parents of slain teenagers.

And, a few feet away, a fierce pro-gun rock-and-roller who said he’d wind up “dead or in jail” if the president was re­elected.

During many State of the Union speeches, the House’s viewing gallery is filled mostly with congressional spouses, lucky staffers and visiting donors. But Tuesday was different. The normally staid gallery was filled, instead, with ordinary Americans whose unordinary lives made them political symbols.

In many cases, what they symbolized was the toll of American gun violence. There were 35 people who had been touched by tragedy, whom Democrats had brought to represent the real stakes of the gun-control debate playing out on the floor below.

This is not, traditionally, the way these things are done. For decades, the State of the Union address was an uncomplicated and highly formal ritual, with just two roles to play. The president spoke. Members of Congress applauded, or didn’t.


Most guests invited to sit in a first lady’s box during the State of the Union represent a point the president wants to make through his speech. Find out who sat with Michelle Obama in 2013, and in previous years, and why they were there.

But, gradually, the address has become a much bigger event, in which an ever-expanding cast has sought to share the national limelight. In 1966, the opposition party started giving an official televised “response.” Then, in 2011, the tea party movement started giving its own post-response response.

Presidents, meanwhile, came to see the House gallery differently. Instead of a simple seating section for spouses and staffers, it became a stage to complement the presidential rhetoric.

The coordinated presence of so many Americans affected by gun violence on Tuesday helped create one of the speech’s emotional high points: A president who often threatens to go over the heads of Congress was, on this night, able to do it literally. He looked up to the gallery, using these symbols to pressure lawmakers in the good seats below.

“Hadiya’s parents, Nat and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence,” Obama said, referring to the parents of a 15-year-old girl who participated in inauguration festivities and was gunned down in Chicago a few days later. “They deserve a vote.”

The lawmakers turned toward where they sat, paying their respects, and Democrats raised a chant of “Vote, vote!”

Obama also singled out former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was grievously wounded by a would-be assassin’s bullet in 2011. Giffords was sitting near the first lady. “Gabby Giffords deserves a vote,” Obama thundered. The chant spread.

Since President Ronald Reagan introduced this ritual in 1982 — pointing out Lenny Skutnik, who dived into the icy Potomac to save victims of the Air Florida crash at the 14th Street bridge days earlier — other presidents have followed suit. But they’ve been unable to confine themselves to just one hero. On Tuesday, for instance, first lady Michelle Obama was joined by 24 people, including a governor, a mayor, the parents of a victim of gun violence and NASA’s mohawked Mars rover engineer — so many that the White House released an interactive seating chart online.

In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Obama urged Congress to take action on gun legislation. (The Washington Post)

What was new on Tuesday was that so many rank-and-file legislators tried the same tactic. Each used his or her single gallery pass on a guest with a message.

More than 30 House Democrats, for instance, brought guests affected by gun violence. The effort was organized by Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), himself a quadriplegic who was paralyzed in a gun accident at age 16.

A.J. McQueen, 23, was the guest of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.). McQueen was shot twice in a gang-related incident when he was 15. He says people in his neighborhood talk about guns and the need for more laws to control them, but he was heartened to hear the same talk from people who could make a difference.

“I feel relieved hearing it,” he said. “I just feel better knowing that something’s being done.” He said he talked earlier to a mother who had lost a son to gun violence, and he felt a kinship.

There were many others like him. Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) invited Natalie Hammond, a teacher who was shot in the foot, leg and hand during the mass shooting at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) invited Denise Reed, whose 14-year-old daughter, Starkesia, was killed by a bullet fired from an AK-47 on a Chicago street in 2006.

For some of those invited to the gallery, the scene was stunning. There were so many people like them, in the same pain.

“It hurts to see that there’s so many of us. That people can’t quite understand that this is an epidemic, like this isn’t normal,” said Kim Odom, whose son, Steven P. Odom, was shot and killed around the corner from their Boston home on Oct. 4, 2007. Odom attended the speech as a guest of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who Odom met during the senator’s recent election campaign.

“It’s not okay,” Odom said afterward. “It’s not okay that our children are being maimed, murdered, traumatized and terrorized. In a sense, we’ve become numb to this — that this is the way things are.”

On the other side of the gun debate, Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.) invited rock musician and fervent conservative Ted Nugent. Nugent had been visited by the Secret Service last year after he told a National Rifle Association convention that he would probably be “dead or in jail” if Obama won reelection.

Other legislators used their guests to make different points.

Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) invited an illegal immigrant, Ga­bino Sanchez, fighting deportation in South Carolina. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) invited a couple from Little Neck, N.Y., whose adoption of a Russian child was halted when Russian President Vladmir Putin signed a law outlawing American adoptions of Russian children.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), for his part, invited two fourth-grade students from the District who are part of the Opportunity Scholarship program that Boehner has championed in the city.

Boehner also invited Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, as well as Ted Kremer, a 30-year-old with Down syndrome who served as a batboy for the Cincinnati Reds. Kremer had hoped to meet President Obama. Boehner aides said that didn’t happen, but Kremer said he got a presidential wave.

And Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) invited legendary crooner Tony Bennett, who is an advocate for gun control.

“It’s almost like going to the White House correspondents’ dinner,” where the formal event serves mainly as an excuse to compete for attention-grabbing guests, said Don Ritchie, the Senate’s in-house historian. He said the change was made possible by a shift in the home lives of the legislators themselves. “Usually, [the ticket] goes to a spouse. But now the spouses, for the most part, don’t come to Washington.”

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.
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