The A-list party prior to the president’s speech was hosted by National Journal and The Atlantic in the Great Hall of the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. The spunky Roberta McCain, Sen. John McCain‘s mom, looked very sharp in a lime-green silk jacket. She told me, “I think John’s gonna run [for president]. In fact, I think he’s running now. Don’t you think so?” Sipping vodka, she was pleased that her son, the senator, gave her his single ticket to sit in the gallery. Each member of Congress gets one ticket. Years ago, then-Rep. Ed Koch, D-N.Y., once traded his for chocolate mandel bread baked by the mother of his colleague Elliott Levitas, D-Ga.
After passing through very tight security, I arrived in the House press gallery to watch the State of the Union address. Reporters were watching the U.S. Capitol police video demonstrating emergency essentials, including how to use the Quid 2000 escape hoods, which are actually a respirator, in the event of a biological or chemical attack. Reporters with beards were relieved to learn the mouthpiece provides protection for them, too.
VA boss designated sitter during SOTU
From my front-row seat, I noticed that Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson was the designated absentee at the State of the Union on Tuesday evening. That means he watched the President’s speech on TV at an undisclosed location away from the Capitol. He was given full secret service protection and is prepared to take over and run the government in the unlikely event of disaster since the President, Vice President, cabinet, congress, and Supreme Court Justices are on the House floor. The tradition began during the cold war but is certainly meaningful since Sept. 11.
Murtha was MIA
Another obvious absentee was Bush war critic, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. He wasn’t designated to stay away, but a Murtha spokeswoman explained: “I’m not aware of where he was. We don’t schedule him at night. We have a daytime schedule.” And he wasn’t at the cattle call in Statuary Hall after the speech to give reaction either.
Some comments from the peanut gallery
Eye-catchers from a gallery view: Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., wearing a revealing black lace negligee-style cami under her gray jacket and sitting with beau Connie Mack, R-Fla. Two elegant fashion standouts: Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, in a well-tailored teal jacket with black trim, and Rep. Jane Harmon, D-Calif., wearing a bright tangerine jacket … Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Dale Kildee, Elliot Engle and Jesse Jackson Jr. arrived on the floor early to grab aisle seats to shake the president’s hand … Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, managed to position himself by the door to the chamber so that he was first to greet the president. President Bush made a special point of reaching for Sen. John Kerry‘s hand … Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a former OB/GYN, didn’t look ready for TV. He chewed gum strenuously when the president talked about counties without OB/GYNs … The first lady walked to her seat, stepping over Rex the dog but not stopping to pet him. What kind of dog lover is she anyway? … D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams turned around and smiled at Rex on several occasions. We’re not sure if the very handsome Rex was snoring or burped to get the mayor’s attention.
The Capitol police officer who arrested activist Cindy Sheehan went home from work early on Wednesday after receiving death threats. He’s a plainclothes officer when Congress is in session and in uniform when they are out of session. He may go to the Democratic retreat in Williamsburg this weekend. The threat is ironic when you consider that Sheehan represents a peace group.
A canine invited guest wasn’t the only first at the State of the Union this year. PresiPresident Bush stayed longer than usual to sign autographs in the back of the chamber so the Capitol couldn’t be cleared. And a perk that invited guests in the executive gallery overlooked: The White House supplied small white pillows with the presidential seal and Air Force One for guests to sit on, but they left them behind.