WASHINGTON – In the hour before we had to arrive in the House Press Gallery for the president's State of the Union address,my colleagues and I decided to grab a quick bite to eat at a Mexican restaurant near the Capitol.
As we sat chatting about the upcoming speech over our tacos and enchiladas,a half dozen U.S. Capitol Police officers strolled in. I almost dropped my burrito when I saw the size of the guns strapped across their chests and backs. I knew there would be heightened security for the president's visit,but it was eye-opening to see it outside of the Capitol.
I'm just glad they stopped to eat – I wouldn't want a hungry,cranky police officer with a machine gun on high alert while I'm strolling around the Capitol.
The highlight of the evening occurred about 20 minutes before the press was scheduled to enter the U.S. House Chamber. A man holding a videotape jumped up on a chair to quiet the more than 100 members of the press crammed into the small gallery. He asked us all to pay attention to the instructions for operating the Quick2000 Escape Hood,a breathing apparatus that slips over the head in case of emergency. Two bins full of them were at both ends of the room.
One might think a supply of hoods designed to protect the lungs from a bio-terrorist's attack would make one feel more secure,but it had the opposite effect on most of the reporters for one reason: The Quick2000 does not,in fact,look like it could be put on quickly.
The host of levers,pull tags and seals would take more than one three-minute instructional tape to learn. And the various warnings – such as “Make sure to pull hair back,remove neck ties and jewelry and push aside high collars that may obstruct the rubber neck of the hood” – were too numerous to be comforting.
Nervous giggles rippled through the room when the video showed a young woman fasten her pony tail,pull her Quick2000 from her desk drawer and rip open the seal. After donning the hood,she looked like an astronaut destined for the moon. The reporters chuckled when the video's talking head sternly reminded us,“Do not panic!” and added that a normal walking pace of three miles an hour would take us ¾ of a mile away in 15 minutes.
Yeah,that's going to keep me calm if the room fills with mustard gas.
I never though the State of the union would remind me of a high school pep rally,but that's exactly what it did. The Republicans were reminiscent of optimistic cheerleaders and the upbeat pep squad while the Democrats were the kids who came to rallies only to get out of class. Their audible groans,head shakes and eye rolls were exaggerated and unexpected,and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's outright laugh at Bush's defense of domestic wire-tapping was startling.
An invisible wall separated the parties. On the right,red-tie wearing Republicans grinned,nodded and clapped after nearly every sentence. On the left,the multi-color attired Democrats wore vacant expressions and clapped listlessly only when prompted. One woman ate an ice cream cone.