State of the Union speech doesn't always go according to script

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Here's a side of the State of the Union speech you don't get to see on television: Every year, early on the day of the address, lawmakers begin staking out seats along the center aisle of the House chamber. If the need arises to leave for a moment as the hours wear on, they'll drape a suit jacket or a hometown newspaper over the back of the chair to hold claim to that precious bit of real estate.

The goal of all that waiting is a presidential handshake, maybe an autograph on a copy of the speech - and a fleeting moment of television exposure before an audience that last year was nearly half the size of the Super Bowl's.

Capitol Hill veterans have a nickname for the ritual. In a family newspaper, it probably should be paraphrased as "Rump-Kissers' Alley."

The Constitution requires that the president "from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union." But the framers didn't give much guidance as to how.

In modern times, the address has become a production - part theater, part pep rally - that says as much about the state of our culture.

It has often been a raucous affair, and this year President Obama's newly empowered GOP opposition will be onstage as well - most visibly over his left shoulder, where John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) will replace Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in the chair reserved for the House speaker.

Yet partisan catcalls might not be in order, given the national desire for civility that arose after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 18 others earlier this month.

Some of the victims' family members and the hospital workers who cared for them will be watching the proceedings from the gallery.

And the audience on the chamber floor will be receiving more attention than usual, thanks to an effort by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and the centrist group Third Way to encourage lawmakers to sit with members of the other party.

That scrambled seating is likely to mean fewer pseudo-spontaneous outbursts, with those on one side of the chamber or the other leaping to their feet at a line they like, while those on the other sit scowling silently.

On this most scripted of evenings, there is still the potential for mishap - and improvisation.

Bill Clinton was still writing his first State of the Union speech as his limo carried him to the Capitol in 1993. He stuck to the prepared text for the first four words.

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