The View From the Gallery: What It's Like to Attend the State of the Union

The surreal experience of being packed into the House balcony with war heroes, professional athletes, and duck dynasts at the biggest political spectacle of the year
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First Lady Michelle Obama was flanked by guests at the State of the Union. (Charles Dharapak/ Associated Press)

Last night I attended my first State of the Union Address. I was invited by a buddy from college—an ultra-conservative freshman member of Congress—who was kind enough to let me tag along to the speech, despite the fact that we disagree on almost every major political issue (and most minor ones, too). I jumped at the chance to ditch my evening routine for a night—I'm a physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan—and booked my Amtrak ticket to Washington, D.C., before the congressman's director of operations could confirm that I'd passed the requisite background check. 

I spent the train ride to D.C. reading an article in this week's New Yorker about a seemingly incompetent abortion practitioner, someone who graduated from Columbia-Presbyterian Medical School (where I did my residency training), wondering if the gruesome details might give further ammunition to the pro-life crowd. By coincidence, as I was reading the article, the House was voting on the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" and the bill was the first thing my friend and I spoke about when I reached his office. (It passed.) As with most political issues, neither one of us remotely considered changing our opinion.  

After dinner at a private club on Capitol Hill surrounded by members of Congress, we walked through a series of heavily guarded underground tunnels to the chamber of the House of Representatives. My escort, like most of the elected officials I saw, was wearing a security pin, which meant that he could bypass the innumerable metal detectors that I was asked to walk through. There weren't many people meandering through the tunnels, and the ones who were seemed to be very young (20-something staffers carrying several Blackberrys) or very old. There were no kids in sight. As we walked, I frequently found myself trying to place a face, trying to recall whose jowls just passed me, whose vaguely familiar face I had once seen on Meet the Press. Nearing the chamber, I developed pin envy and daydreamed of starring in a State of the Union action film, perhaps one where a terrorist obtains a security pin and waltzes into the chamber. If only there was a heroic doctor to intervene.

At the end of the underground maze, we reached an elevator. As my friend motioned to push a button, a security guard shook his head and said, "Sorry, V.I.P."

I pointed at my friend and whispered, "We're V.I.P!"

The guard was unimpressed. "That's the president's elevator."

We soon found the stairs and parted ways. I went up to the third floor and handed my ticket (Gallery 1, Row D, Seat 19) to a guard and was informed that I'd have to check my phone with security. I did not like this. I wanted to take pictures. I wanted to tweet. I wanted to text my mom, "I'm here!"

The guard flipped over my ticket and pointed. "Rules are rules." On the back of the ticket were, indeed, five rules:

  1. Nothing may be taken into the Galleries other than articles of clothing and handbags.
  2. Guests must remain seated, and refrain from reading, writing, eating, drinking, applauding, smoking, or picture taking.
  3. Front railing must be kept clear of all objects and guests must not lean on railings.
  4. Appropriate hats may be worn by gentlemen for religious purposes only.
  5. Any disturbance or infraction of these rules is justification for expulsion from the Galleries.

I took a long look at my phone, my baby, and saw that my last Google search had been "attending the state of the union." That’s how I'd learned that joining me in the peanut gallery would be Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty (guest of Louisiana Representative Vance McAllister); Fort Lee, N.J., Mayor Mark Sokolich; Penn State football coach James Franklin, Boston Marathon-bombing survivors, openly gay NBA player Jason Collins, and Sean Hannity, who was now standing just a few feet away from me in the security line. That man is apparently serious when he says he wants out of Manhattan.

I handed over my phone and prepared to take my seat.

Walking into the chamber is an unusual experience. The room is about the size of a Broadway theater, but with much better lighting. The space is cramped—there are only four rows in the gallery—and you have as much personal space as you do flying coach. Everyone spends the 8-o'clock hour people-watching (it took very little time to find the Duck Dynasty beard) and there's a lot of awkward chatter in the gallery, mostly as guests introduce themselves and sort out each other's politics. Do I like the people next to me or loathe them?

To my right was a D.C. lawyer who was active in local politics; to my left was a Vietnam veteran named Rita who was wearing a large medal around her neck that read, "Arizona Veterans Hall of Fame." As we waited for President Obama to arrive, Rita and I struck up a conversation. She was a war hero who had been invited by her congressman. She was also a nurse, and our conversation eventually moved to medicine, and just as I asked her what she thought of Obamacare, the crowd burst into cheers. The first lady had arrived. Not long after that, her husband entered. And then the fun began.

As Obama made his way through a sea of handshakes toward the dais, the women flanking me began discussing the concept of the designated survivor – the member of the Cabinet who’s not at the State of the Union in the event that the building blows up. (It’s hard to believe Hollywood hasn’t yet churned out a film called Designated Survivor based on this.) Last night, the designated survivor was again the secretary of energy, Ernest Moniz. (In 2013, it was then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu). If the unthinkable happens, our country is going with the Energy guy.

When I've watched the State of the Union Address at home, I've often scratched my head at all of the standing ovations. Do we really need them? Does the president intentionally use buzzwords that will get people off their feet? It sure seems like it. Before last night's speech, I wondered how many times I'd feel compelled to stand. I joked with my friend that I’d skipped leg day at the gym for precisely this reason. But my ticket informed me that I was prohibited from standing. And applauding. And most forms of hat-wearing! The D.C. lawyer to my right said the rules were never enforced. I certainly hoped not; I came along way to cheer.

Soon I found myself clapping when others were clapping, standing when others were standing. But that got old quickly. So I stopped standing. I suppose I fatigue easily. There were 31 standing ovations in the 2013 speech, and it seemed like we were on a pace to far exceed that (this year there were 44). But that changed when Obama mentioned veterans and the nurse to my left leaped out of her seat. From then on, I just copied her; if she clapped, so did I. If she stood, I stood.

Others have dissected the 2014 State of the Union speech more cogently than I could, and the scores of journalists tweeting from inside the chamber described much of what it felt like to be inside the chamber. But what struck me most was the way the Affordable Care Act was woven into the speech. The president's signature piece of legislation received relatively minor billing (although the loudest cheer of the night was when Obama asked Congress to stop trying to repeal the law). I had hoped that we'd hear more about Obamacare, more about the disastrous rollout, more about what's being done to fix the gaps in care. Even if, like me, you support the president’s plan, there are so many questions that still need to be answered. As Obama spoke, I thought about those questions. They were fresh in my mind because I’d listened as my buddy fielded one telephone call after another from constituents who can't afford to pay the higher premiums. Constituents who are angry, constituents who are scared they’ll lose a trusted doctor. There was no answer for them tonight, nor was there much for supporters of the Affordable Care Act to get excited about. I doubt many minds were changed.

When the speech was over, we all stood and waited for the president to exit the building. Then we waited some more. Eventually, perhaps 15 minutes after the speech had ended and the networks were edging toward their return to regularly scheduled programming, we were allowed to exit the gallery, retrieve our precious phones, and step out into the snowy night.

Soon I was on my way back to Manhattan and back to navigating the murky, unpredictable new healthcare system. I wish last night gave me a new perspective, or a new way of thinking about the Affordable Care Act, but it didn't. It was largely a boilerplate speech, but I'm glad I was there. It's not often I get to see my buddy. Or meet a war hero.

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Matt McCarthy is a writer and physician based in New York. He writes the Medspin column for Deadspin.

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