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In Statuary Hall, Snapchats and Notorious RBG

Biden left, and McConnell lead the Senate procession to the House floor for Obama's State of the Union address. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Biden left, and McConnell lead the Senate procession to the House floor for Obama's State of the Union address. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“I just did Snapchat,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., exclaimed to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. The two were walking through the gauntlet of press in Statuary Hall to the House chamber for President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address on Tuesday night. “Ten seconds! Ten seconds,” he said, recounting the allotted time the app allows.  

Washington’s “it” media events are few and far between. If the Inauguration is politics’ World Cup, hyped for consumption but once every four years, then the State of the Union is Capitol Hill’s Super Bowl, one of the few annual affairs that merits live network broadcasting and prods members of Congress to experiment with unfamiliar social media. Earlier in the day, Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., shared a bipartisan Snapchat moment , and hours later, Daines was still at it, Snapchatting in the breezeway between Statuary Hall and the Rotunda, shortly before senators started their trek from the Senate floor to the House for the speech.  

Senate leaders kept with the bipartisan theme in their short walk across the Capitol. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the president of the Senate, led the way with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; followed by Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; and Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas.  

That organizing principle mostly stuck — Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., walked with Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who spent six days and nights together in the Marshall Islands for the Discovery Channel’s “Rival Survival” in 2014, walked together. Some home-state colleagues hung out: Iowa Republican Sens. Charles E. Grassley and Joni Ernst, for instance.  

There were a couple of loners. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., who is running for president, walked the path alone. So did Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, staring intently at his phone.  

After the senators passed, a hush fell as the Supreme Court entered Statuary Hall — a silence that lasted as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Elena Kagan and Stephen G. Breyer passed but broke when the court’s premier cult figure appeared.  

“There she is!” someone from the crowd said as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg entered the hall. Ginsburg, followed by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, seemed well aware of the attention, although the “Notorious RBG” did not acknowledge the crowd, nor the flood of photographs being taken of her.  

Ginsburg’s cult status was cemented when she admitted last year that one of the reasons she nodded off during the 2015 SOTU was she’d had a couple of slugs of wine with dinner.  

Before the State of the Union’s red carpet moment (although to be clear, there is no red carpet, only purple rope lines), there comes The Big Schlep. In the hours before the president arrives, the building takes on the feel of, on one hand, a rock concert in waiting — with its glowering security personnel and its sound and lighting technicians furiously prepping Statuary Hall — and on the other hand, a half day of school scheduled for a teachers’ in-service training. Yes, it’s a work day, but just barely, as the two chambers tread water on second-tier legislative business.  

Hours earlier, in the moments before the House floor security sweep, early birds circled the chamber. Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., always one of the first members to stake out a good seat, stood next to the William King statue in the Will Rogers hallway, answering questions about his routine. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, waiting patiently just outside the Speaker’s Lobby for the sweep to conclude.  

This year’s speech came earlier in the year than any since Gerald R. Ford’s Jan. 12 address in 1977. Congress’ reconvening, the timing of Obama’s speech and the College Football National Championship schedule entailed some sacrifices. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a big sports fan whose home state hosted Monday night’s Alabama-Clemson championship in Glendale (Alabama won, 45-40) skipped the down-to-the-wire contest.  

“I had a meeting with the King of Jordan this morning. Couldn’t do both,” McCain said of a bipartisan meeting of senators with King Abdullah II, visiting Washington this week. The Arizona senator gamely stopped often in Statuary Hall, saying hello and providing good quote for the reporters behind the purple ropes.  

After the senators, Cabinet members, justices and even pages made their way into the chamber and Obama began speaking, another hush descended on the Statuary Hall crowd. Reporters and camera operators gathered themselves, knowing they had about an hour before members would swarm back out for interviews among the statues. The assembled journalists spread out to regroup a short time later.  

And in their path away from the hall was one last little reminder of the magnitude of an event that so many think of as a political dog and pony show: Dozens of  firefighters and emergency services personnel in Haz-Mat suits bivouacked just outside the Rotunda and on the third floor outside the galleries. They were relaxed, checking their mobile phones, hanging out. But prepared for the worst, outside the view of the public and the dignitaries inside the House chamber, but ready to respond.  

After the speech, Durbin laughed as he recounted his first Snapchat experience. “I had no idea what I was doing. It went 11 seconds, so I had to re-do it,” he said. “I had no idea,” he repeated.


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