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.
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.