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How to Get a Good Seat at the State of the Union

Let us sit. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Let us sit. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Ever wonder about the seating arrangements at the State of the Union? Not only does a good seat provide a better listening experience, but prime real estate increases the chances of a handshake or peck on the cheek from President Barack Obama and face time on live television. HOH surveyed some of the best position players as well as institutional rules to present the best options for securing a primo seat.  

Camp Out Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., stumbled into his tradition of always getting a good seat early, at his first State of the Union. A fellow freshman told him that former Rep. Gillespie V. “Sonny” Montgomery, D-Miss., who was friends with President George H.W. Bush, sat on the aisle and always shook hands with the president. Engel told HOH that Montgomery said if the colleague sat next to him, he would pull Bush over to shake his hand and if Engel sat in the third seat in, he would pull him over, too.  

After the sweep of the floor, Engel went into the chamber and got the third seat in. But, two rows ahead, there was an available aisle seat, so the New York congressman grabbed it. “I’ve been grabbing the aisle seat ever since,” he says. “It happened by accident but I will tell you, my constituents love it. I get more [people talking about] seeing me at the State of the Union on TV all throughout the year in my district.”  

“Now if I didn’t do it, people would wonder where I was and think I got sick or something,” he says. He will arrive Tuesday about 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m. and work all day on his phone, iPad, signing letters and reading newspapers. “I actually get more work done there then I get in my office, because there are less distractions,” he said.  

Engel advises not taking a seat early and walking away. But, if you have to go to the bathroom, people will watch out for your seat. “There’s sort of a camaraderie that builds in this kind of thing,” he said.  

When former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot in January 2011, Engel recalls, Democrats and Republicans sent a signal of bipartisanship by pairing up to sit together on either side of the aisle.  

He sat with former Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, and when Obama walked down the aisle, Engel said, “I said, ‘Hello Mr. President, I thought I would confuse you and sit on the Republican side of the aisle.’ And he said, ‘You know, I was walking down and I was wondering where’s Eliot?’” The microphone picked it up, giving Engel’s constituents even more to talk about.  

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 20: Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., catches Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., after she trips on the raised seating platform as she arrives for President Barack Obama's State of the Union address in the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Butterfield catches Rep. Diana DeGette after she trips on the raised seating platform as she arrives for the 2015 State of the Union. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Be in Leadership As part of the Democratic chief deputy whip team, Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., has a reserved seat at the State of the Union, in the row behind the first tier of leadership. “I wanted to dispel the rumor that I camp out all day long, I don’t,” the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus said.  

“Typically, I sit towards the aisle and [Senior Chief Deputy Whip John Lewis] typically sits behind [Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi; we’re like bookends on the deputy whip row,” he told HOH.  

After seating his guest, he arrives on the floor at 7:30 or 8 p.m. to find a “Reserved for Chief Deputy Whip” sign on the seat, but he occasionally will write his name under that, he said.  

He has greeted with a handshake both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama at all of their States of the Unions. Usually, he prefers the seat next to Engel. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., sits on his other side and Terri A. Sewell, D-Ala., sits next to her.  

“People back home make reference to it all the time,” he said. “People constantly say, ‘You have such a good seat at the State of the Union, you must sit there all day long,’ actually I don’t.”  

Obama once gave Butterfield a hug at the speech. He said to Obama, “I need you in North Carolina” and the president replied, “We’re bringing the convention to Charlotte, what else do you want?” They laughed and the microphone picked up the conversation, Butterfield recalled.  

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 28: President Barack Obama hugs Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg upon arriving in the House Chamber of the Capitol to deliver his State of the Union address. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Ginsburg greets Obama at the 2013 State of the Union. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Become a Supreme Court Justice The nine Supreme Court justices get a front row spot at the State of the Union, if they choose to go. Justices aren’t required to go and some find it uncomfortable considering they are expected to sit impassively and show no bias or judgment whatsoever.  

In 2010, Obama criticized the court’s Citizens United decision, prompting Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. to mouth the words, “Not true.” He hasn’t been back since.  

At last year’s State of the Union, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fell asleep and later admitted she was not “100 percent sober .” The justices had dinner before and Justice Anthony Kennedy brought California wine, which Ginsburg said she couldn’t resist, USA Today reported.  

According to the Constitution , there is no age or citizenship qualification to become a justice and you don’t even need to have a law degree or undergraduate degree. But, all eyes are on you on SOTU night to see if you clap, smile or, best yet, fall asleep.  

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