Random Observations on Attending a Presidential Address

Last week I had the privilege of attending as the guest of Congresswoman Louis Slaughter the address by President Trump to a joint session of Congress. By now there have been hundreds of comments about the speech from all kinds of pundits. I don’t have anything to add to them.

But I have had a fair number of people ask me what it is like to go. What follows are some observations about the experience from the perspective of an attendee.

Politicians have limitless energy. Congresswoman Slaughter is in her eighties and in the brief time I spent with her it was clear that she gets energized from talking to constituents and doing political and public stuff. If I had had to spend the whole day with her, I am convinced that long after I was physically and emotionally exhausted that she’d still be at full speed.

Later, while waiting for the speech to start a Republican Congressman came by where I was seated to say hi to his invitee. He stayed to chat for a while. For all the differences between him and Congresswoman Slaughter (and he said she was ‘ok for a Democrat’ — pretty big praise these days I suspect), he too was full of energy and vim and the more he talked the more he seemed to have. Extroversion really is an asset in politics.

Young people make the Congress go. Between this event and my testimony a month ago, I would guess that of the twenty or so staffers I met only one or two were over 30, and even they were barely so. Just keeping up with them was a challenge for an out of shape 60 year old. Running around like spinning dreidles for a whole day, as they seemed to do, is totally incomprehensible to me at this point in my life. Ah, to be young again.

The Capitol complex, by which I mean the three house office buildings — Rayburn, Cannon, and Longworth in addition to the Capitol itself — is a bunch of formal spaces on top of rabbit warrens that often go two to three floors underground. This is particularly true of the Capitol itself. It is easy to get lost without guides. Don’t go in yourself without a really good compass.

Of course, you can’t get in with compass because you probably can’t get it past security. I didn’t get a feeling of being watched but I did get the sense that if you did anything at all out of the ordinary you’d be pounced on within seconds. Both reassuring and a little unnerving, though all the police and security I dealt with were polite and helpful.

To get into the speech, I had to go through exactly the right entrance, have a special ticket and empty my pockets multiple times. The entrance I took went through the basement of the capitol and then wandered around corridors, with Capitol Police every 10 yards or so. I ended up asking for directions at least 5 times. Eventually they put me on an elevator to the gallery.

Once again I went through security screens. This time they took away my cell phone. As far as I could tell, men weren’t allowed to carry anything in that wouldn’t fit in a suit pocket. This was torture for me since I couldn’t bring in anything to read.

Women got a better deal: they could take in a purse, which meant they could have reading material. One of the few times gender discrimination works for women!

My seat was pretty high up, about mezzanine level at a concert and about that far away from the podium. The space is beautiful and expansive. The view on TV doesn’t do it justice. Along the top of the walls are sculpted faces of great historical lawgivers, all except for Moses showing the profile. Moses’ full face is shown. All in all the effect is something akin to a sanctuary or chapel.

Waiting for the speech to begin was boring! They ask you to come two hours early and there you sit, no cell phone, nothing to read, and surrounded by random strangers of all political persuasions. After you get done with introductions, conversation gets a little tricky — you don’t know them so you can’t have deep conversations and the thing you probably have in common — a deep interest in politics — is potentially a source of conflict. So after a while the conversation twindles away as you twiddle your thumbs. Perhaps if I was a bigger fan of Trump’s I would have felt more of a sense of excitement but even the Trump fans around me seemed to get tired of waiting.

Then the various entities wander in — the Supreme Court, the Cabinet, the VP and so forth. Where I was sitting, all of them were too far away and to surrounded by each other to pick anyone out.

It is kind of cool to hear the President introduced but the greeting for Trump was really pretty tepid, even from Republicans. I didn’t get the sense that one did with say Reagan or Obama that very many were clamoring to be seen with him.

The speech itself was something of a chore to get through. Some of that was undoubtedly my dislike for Trump the man and the politician. But there were two other contributing factors. Where I was sitting I couldn’t see any of the guests at all so I missed Melania’s dress, which I hear was quite a number. It is kind of hard to get excited about people you can’t see. I also think that as pure oratory it wasn’t a great speech. Whatever his gifts may be he is not on a par with Reagan or Obama.

The best part of the whole event was leaving. No one can leave until the President does unless you literally know the secret passages. When I finally got downstairs, all the politicians were hanging out in the hallways and no one could leave through the official exits. I walked around the Capitol a couple of times trying to get out.

Eventually I bumped into a couple of interns working for Nancy Pelosi. They knew just which elevator to get on and which sub-basement to get off at. Then they opened an unmarked door, led me down a narrow stairs, and then through the rabbit warrens of the Capitol complex — we tried a bunch of doors before we found one into the Cannon building. They were very nice and kind — they waited for my 60-year old legs and tolerated my questions about their dreams. All I could think of was: please just get me to Metro so I can go to sleep in my hotel bed!