4:15 p.m.: As we were walking to catch Metro to the Capitol on Tuesday, one of the interns who was going with me to the State of the Union, Salvador Guerrero, remembered an editor’s advice to cover up enthusiasm while reporting on big events: “Act like you’ve been there before.” A tough one to follow – especially in this case. The tickets to the speech were being handed out until 5 p.m.
The room we go in right before getting into the House Press Gallery, on the third floor of the Capitol, is divided into four parts and still has inactive fireplaces and working phone booths that could easily help Clark Kent to turn into Superman. It was already full by the time we got there. With hours to wait, we decided to eat something inside the Capitol complex. It wouldn’t be smart to leave at that point.
5:15 p.m.: We went to the restaurant between the Dirksen and Hart Senate Office Buildings because most of the restaurants were closed elsewhere. My colleagues very appropriately had Senate burgers. As with the other Capitol complex buildings, this one is connected to the Capitol by underground tunnels and trains. A Capitol police officer said we couldn’t enter the Capitol any longer when we were trying to get back at about 6 p.m. My blood pressure went up as if I had just seen Abraham Lincoln’s ghost. The panic attack that would follow was avoided when another officer let us through.
6:30 p.m.: Media elite and mortal interns stood side by side waiting to get into the Press Gallery. Other people who were at the State of the Union for the first time watched the House floor fill up slowly. “It looks much smaller than it does on TV,” they said. I agree.
A Press Gallery employee stepped up on a chair and reviewed the rules – “no phones, no pictures” – and said he had “a very important and exciting video to show you.” The video shows how to use a gas mask. Experienced journalists watched newcomers’ reactions instead of the tape. Everybody laughed at the detailed instructions about how to open the package. I asked the Press Gallery employee if I could bring my camera. Denied. Only a handful of photojournalists can enter the Press Gallery. Some are in a gallery on the other side of the House, and a very few have access to the floor where the President and the members of Congress are.
8:21 p.m.: The first 30 tickets were called. Mine was No. 141. The Press Gallery is above and behind where the president stands. I was on the president’s right hand side. The left was full because first lady Michelle Obama and her guests watched the speech nearby. Among them, Brazilian, Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger. I clapped a little when Mrs. Obama entered. I shouldn’t. Nobody else in the Press Gallery did, except for a few other interns. I remembered Sal’s editor advice at that point.
Senators and the president’s staff entered little by little. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is quite short. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner didn’t shake hands with Republicans sitting in aisle seats. But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shook hands with everyone.
9 p.m.: The president entered a minute or so after the scheduled start time. Copies of the speech were handed out almost immediately. On the first page, a notification in capitalized letters: EMBARGOED UNTIL DELIVERY. I could see Obama’s head as he delivered, without improvising, the State of the Union, mixing the tone of a father telling off his kids, the Congress that refuses to work in a bipartisanism way, and one of a statesman trying to paint a better picture of the country.
10:45 p.m.: The hallways were free, but Frank Bumb and I couldn’t use the tunnels to get to the Cannon House Office Building. We were going there to help Scripps Howard News Service multimedia journalist Kristin Volk find members of Congress and record their reactions to the speech for Scripps’ TV stations. Police officers restricted access to the confusing hallways and led us right to the exit. There were 16 TV crews at the Cannon Building. I received a list of 17 senators and representatives. Frank helped me by pointing out which state they were from in a book with their pictures so I could identify them.
Soon people start leaving the Cannon Building. I was able to identify two of the men on the list, a senator and a House member. Kristen ended up getting 12 of the people she needed to interview. I left the Cannon Building about midnight, but not before getting lost again trying to find my way out, a little disappointed at the small workload during the interviews but still high on adrenaline for being at the State of the Union. Metro had closed, so we caught a cab home.