There’s the State of the Union you know: the grand-scale speech, the grand-standing politicians, the thousands of handshakes and the excessive back-slapping.
And then there’s the other State of the Union, the one you don’t see: a scrum of cameras and microphones and reporters, hordes of Senators and Representatives vying for the spotlight, and handlers -- lots of handlers -- especially the lawmakers’ press aides. And there are hundreds of cops.
Behind the scenes, the Capitol on the night of the State of the Union address feels more like a Britney Spears concert or a night at the circus. It’s loud. It’s frantic.
To give you a sense of the action, we perched a time-lapse camera on a balcony looking over Statuary Hall and snapped more than 4,000 photos over 12 hours. (Watch below or click here.)
It all starts at about noon -- nine hours before the speech -- when camera grips and gaffers begin building a scaffold inside Statuary Hall. (“Stat Hall,” as insiders call it, is the marble-floored, velvet-curtain-lined former House chamber that is now ringed with bronze and stone statues of famous Americans.) The scaffold holds the giant lighting rig that bathes the room in daylight long past sundown.
Then the camera crews set up. Networks and channels get an assigned spot around the edge of the rounded room, each with a wall-facing shot of a statue or fireplace.
Throughout the evening, a channel-surfer will see dozens of live-shots, each with a clean camera-angle on a single Washington correspondent commenting on the proceedings or chatting with lawmakers. What you won’t see is that the people operating the cameras are practically elbow-to-elbow, and behind them, filling the center of the lofted room, is a growing crowd of reporters from print, radio, television and digital outlets gathering for The Main Event.
And what’s The Main Event for this horde of reporters? It isn’t the president’s speech. It’s the mayhem that follows when more than 500 Senators and Representatives spill out of the joint session of Congress into Statuary Hall after the address.
The reporters are all armed with a version of the same question: What did you think of the president’s speech? And the lawmakers are equally armed with their reactions – in many cases crafted before they ever heard the speech.
And many of the lawmakers line up, some even before the speech is over, to be interviewed. It’s as if they want to be first to talk to Santa. Why?
“The real reason is we like to communicate to our constituents.” Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., said. “It's very expensive really to do that. And so, whenever you get an opportunity to seize that moment, that's why you're gonna see so many of our Congressmen and women here in this, this hall."