In person, the State of the Union is a wholly different experience. No close-ups. No tight shots of the president. No views from within the throng of members of Congress greeting the president after his entrance is announced. No running commentary to inform (or influence) the viewer's perspective.
Despite its scale of importance, the whole State of the Union spectacle, if you will, seems oddly "familiar" when you're in the room. In fact, I couldn't help but equate it to what a good old-fashioned, well-attended town meeting in the Berkshires is like.
That's not to diminish the importance of the State of the Union speech. To the contrary, it elevates the significance of simple democratic gatherings -- town meetings, boards of selectmen, conservation commissions, planning boards -- in other words, the underpinnings of a proper, operational republic. (By the poll numbers, I know some of you are thinking that's giving too much credit to the president and Congress. But let's behave.)
On Tuesday, I had the privilege to attend President Obama's State of the Union address at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to represent the Berkshires and the rest of the 1st Congressional District as the invitee of U.S. Rep. Richard Neal. So, I offer you some of my observations and my takeaway from the event.
After several security checkpoints, one makes it to the gallery in the balcony of the House chamber, a large hall that seems deceptively intimate. I couldn't find the chamber's dimensions, but the floor has 448 permanent seats and, by my estimation, an equal or greater number of them in the balcony.
My point is that gazing down on the assembly, the view puts the federal government into perspective. The crowd of senators is there. The members of the House surround them. There's the Supreme Court (though not all of them attended or do so regularly). The president's Cabinet. The Joint Chiefs of Staff. The vice president. Speaker of the House. And, of course, the president.
But on television and in the media, extremes are magnified and the sense of scale is distorted. The tight shots on the president and the members of Congress make them appear larger than life.
When the president takes the podium, it's a person before a crowd of people pressing a case for the people. That's the perspective I had from the balcony. It's my takeaway from having attended the State of the Union in person.
It sounds incredibly simple, but at its essence, this is how the Founding Fathers designed the Constitution. President Lincoln nimbly articulated this enduring simplicity in his Gettysburg Address: "That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
We need to keep this in mind. This is not to give our elected officials a "pass" on their duties and responsibilities to the American people; in fact, we should uphold and propagate accountability and make our voices heard. Hearkening back to an earlier point, we should all hold ourselves accountable for participating in our democracy, whether it's voting at a town meeting or in an election, running for office, or speaking up at a local selectmen's meeting.
It's simple. After all, we are us.
Kevin Moran is the vice president of news at The Eagle. Moran and The Eagle funded his trip to Washington, D.C., and no special treatment or caveats were sought or offered in exchange for Rep. Neal's ticket to attend the State of the Union.
Observations from the gallery
Now that the dust has settled from President Obama's 2014 State of the Union address on Tuesday night, a few random observations that television may not have captured:
For some members of Congress, the State of the Union address is the political equivalent of the Super Bowl. A number of members bring cameras and gather for group pictures.
Members of Congress are allowed to bring and use their smartphones on the floor. According to a report in the New York Times, members issued nearly 1,500 tweets during the speech.
Many Democrats followed the president's speech with copies of it in hand. Their synchronous page turns were audible. The Republicans, from my vantage point, just listened.
Leading up to, during and after the State of the Union, the Capitol building seems the safest, most dangerous place on Earth. Ultimately, it was a perfectly uneventful event with regard to danger. Security consists of several perimeters around the Capitol and numerous checkpoints for visitors attending the speech.
The tunnels from the Senate and House buildings that lead to the Capitol can be walked. But most people ride the "subway," which is less subway car and more like a Disney World parking lot shuttle.
The House chamber, despite its crescent-shaped seating arrangement for members, is in fact a rectangular room.
After the president and most members of Congress had left, Willie Robertson and his wife, Korie, (of "Duck Dynasty" fame) got an up-close look at the rostrum.
- Kevin Moran