Witnessing History

SmartHER News takes you behind the scenes at the U.S. Capitol for the 2020 State of the Union address and the final vote at the Senate’s impeachment trial of Pres. Trump.

Reporter’s Notebook

24-Hours In D.C.

By Jenna Lee

Butterfly wings must make this noise in silent, echoey spaces where one can really listen, I thought as the fluttering sound of dozens of camera shutters provided a soft tempo in the background of an otherwise-quiet room with sea-blue wallpaper, mahogany wood and bright, cool white lights.  A fluorescent pink suit – worn by a woman with a string of pearls, sitting in the corner of the last balcony row – caught the eye as a sea of grays and blues and blacks rippled row after row to the floor two stories below. On the opposite side of the room, a little boy with blonde hair sat with his elbows on a ledge where he rested his chin, hands clasped over his ears, reflecting a strong desire of at least half the audience of the speaker – who suddenly appeared not quite as tall, or sounded quite as loud, as expected. In fact, everyone seemed slightly out of focus, as if someone took a wet paintbrush to a nearly dry painting, blurring the details technology often provides the senses.

The distance felt nice; I’m used to seeing all these people on a cell phone video in the palm of my hand, so up close, so loud, so vivid and almost too real. The daily assault on the senses that remains such a force of news coverage, for better or worse, drifted away. For the moment.

My name is Jenna. I’m the founder of SmartHER News. I’ve worked as a journalist for 15 years (that suddenly makes me feel old). I had an opportunity few ever get – to sit inside the chamber of the State of the Union in the audience while the President delivers his annual address, and within the next 24 hours, also witness an historic vote on whether that same President would become the first impeached leader removed from office in American history. Like most journalists, this happened with a little help and a lot of luck.

One can only attend the State of the Union by invitation. Each lawmaker gets one ticket for an aide, spouse or a family member. I received an invite from my father-in-law, a congressman from southeast Texas. He wasn’t a congressman when I first met him; he was a dentist – still is! But a few years ago, he stopped practicing dentistry in the small town of Woodville, Texas, to run for Congress as a Republican in a district that recently only elected Democrats. We don’t attend many events together. As a journalist, I simply can’t participate in political events as a private citizen; I take my responsibility to remain apolitical very seriously. But a joint session of Congress where both the House and the Senate, and all political parties gather together for a presidential address, required by the U.S. Constitution, presented an exception. And I gladly jumped at the opportunity to sit in the audience, separate from elected officials, and witness history in the making.

President George Washington delivered the first State of the Union in 1790 and it remains the shortest in American history, at just over 1,000 words (for context, I’m already at 500 here). But not every President followed in kind. President Thomas Jefferson did not like the idea of delivering a speech to Congress; he felt it was too time consuming. He wrote his State of the Union – a practice many embraced until the 1900s. The advent of radio started to slowly change the presentation, and in the 1960s President Lyndon Johnson decided to televise the speech live, during primetime. And here we are, more than 50 years later, still receiving it through the live pictures and audio available to the public.

And it’s for that reason most of us see the State of the Union exactly the same way, with the same footage, same angles, as a limited team of television cameras provide a feed available to all the major news networks around the world. This happens for logistical reasons; having hundreds of cameras crammed to cover the same event doesn’t make sense. For events like this, and often for others even less high-profile, a designated crew streamlines the production and levels the playing field.  This strategy provides the audience incredible access not even available to the human eye inside the chamber. But it also limits the perspective by providing a single, unnatural viewpoint that everyone shares. None of the major television anchors that guide their network’s coverage, and often the public’s opinion, come to the room itself; they all see the same footage from inside their studio. And every journalist in the chamber has access in the same set of seats behind the podium with one exception; photojournalists appear to have more flexibility to float in and out of different vantage points to collect their photos, which is why the sound of snapping shutters echoes like surround sound in the chamber.

So, to sit inside this room, in the audience, provided freedom from the confines of these single frames. But getting to that seat wasn’t easy.

One ticket – a golden ticket, actually – gets you in the front doors of the Capitol and through a first round of security, much like entering a courthouse anywhere in America. The concrete of the street outside contrasts with the incredible amount of marble on the floors and canvassing the walls once inside. Subtle grooves underfoot on the stairs create a path where most walk, under huge paintings recognizable from textbooks with familiar faces of America’s founders. Small signs everywhere explicitly warn: no photos allowed. The grand stairs lead to the gallery, a balcony of seats that overlooks the House floor where politicians representing districts across the nation exercise their duty to stand for the priorities of their people. But once up the stairs, one cannot even reach the door leading to the gallery without abandoning their cell phones in an organized security checkpoint tucked into a cubby-system seamlessly set beside walls built 200 years earlier, before working electricity.

The lackluster security checks one may experience entering ballparks or concerts doesn’t exist here. The Capitol Police check the entire body, the seams of coats, coin purses inside a wallet, and demand removal of smart watches – such as the one worn by yours truly. But once free on the gallery floor, simple wooden doors open to the balcony above a cavernous, instantly-recognizable room – windowless by design to keep those inside focused.

Hundreds of representatives can occupy the House floor on any given day, floating in and out depending on the business at hand. But on the night of the State of the Union, the room fills to capacity, which seems a flexible number negotiated constantly by security: 435 representatives, 100 senators, military leaders, cabinet members, Supreme Court justices cram onto the floor, sitting unnaturally close to each other as the room swells to the seams from bottom to top. Even one of the President’s sons sitting in the gallery appeared to sit on an aisle stair, as did others, like you might see during a high school basketball game. Photographers moved up and down and around the rows. Security watched everyone and everything but also added extra standing bodies in the already-impassable narrow stairwells.

The theater seats in the balcony felt forgettable but not uncomfortable. The light shined brightly, more so than in any room in a normal office or home, but not glaring. The sound from the microphones seemed soft. Whenever someone spoke, whether the Vice President, the Speaker of the House or the President himself, one found themselves reaching for the noise as it bounced around the room. All the seats angled towards a large American flag hanging at the center. And above everyone’s head hung 23 profiles called “marble relief portraits,” honoring those who inspired and influenced America’s founders. The white silhouettes of these faces appear to look into the distance, providing a purposeful trim around the room, with one exception: the statue of Moses, who looks directly at whomever addresses the chamber. Despite all the people packed haphazardly into one of the most-watched places on the planet, the room remained a crisp temperature during an uncommonly balmy January night.

A large clock ticked down the minutes to the address, which started slightly later than the expected 9 pm eastern. Subtle actions signaled the arrival of the President. Two separate women, walking together, each carefully clasping a short glass of water, set them to the left of the empty podium. As the moment neared, the groups coalesced: Democrats to the left; many of the Democrat women sat together, wearing white to honor the suffragettes who fought for a woman’s right to vote 100 years ago. Republicans, with no such noticeable dress code, sat mostly to the right.

The audience members did not reflect the obvious divide of their elected representatives. I sat almost directly in front of the President, on a side slightly favoring the Democrats.  As I looked across the chamber, I was eye-level with other journalists – who, confined to a designated area with desks, had permission to bring their laptops. Based on the limits of their seats, they could only stare at the back of President and witness the reaction of the crowd.

The President’s cabinet and the Supreme Court justices entered the chamber before the Sergeant at Arms announced the arrival of the President who casually made his way to the podium, looking comfortable and confident despite the controversy around his impeachment by those inside the chamber. Briefly soaking up the applause of his party, he stepped to the microphone and started to speak. Surprisingly, he initially sounded slightly hoarse, causing most to lean forward in anticipating of hearing every word.  And for a man who so often appears to speak so passionately, his entire address had very few vocal peaks and valleys. Absent were the often-ad-libbed moments that have become commonplace during his presidency. And only one noticeably uncomfortable moment surfaced, where a pause seemed to signify a teleprompter issue interrupting the paced delivery of his speech.

The audience sat and listened, or stood and clapped, depending on their preference. One outburst occurred from an attendee in the gallery with a passing reference to the 2nd Amendment, but it was inaudible even though I sat close by – and the man was quickly removed, without protest, by security.  A group of Democrat women, dressed in white, distracted themselves on cellphones and iPads as the President spoke – whispering to each other, passing notes, as their obvious displeasure grew from a murmur to a low rumble which even elicited the Speaker of the House to reprimand with a severe disapproving look. But other Democrats did not follow in kind, some of them noticeably standing and applauding the President during descriptions of his various efforts, and even those whose clear disdain reached audible levels still stood and applauded for topics like criminal justice reform, infrastructures spending, support of Venezuela’s opposition leader and the newly- announced Space Force. It appeared that the President, as well as members of his opposing party, both exercised some restraint.

With one exception.

Towards the end of the speech, the Speaker of the House started shuffling papers, sorting and resorting them, which became a distraction in the final lines of the speech, delivered after 10 pm.

The exit of the President and his team happened quickly. Many in the audience had arrived in the room hours before the speech and anxiously rushed to get back to their phones and out of the building, missing the moment which was seen by so many over and over again on television replay of the Speaker ripping the speech in the conclusion of the talk.

And as the room returned to its normal state, the lights still shined. The presence of the President added a dose of electricity to the Chamber, both a bright excitement for those who supported him and a deep, obvious apprehension from those who didn’t.  But as the audience left, the room still had a presence, a depth perhaps, that felt more significant than one person, remark or any one action.

As I walked the dark Washington streets, a warm – almost spring – breeze made a heavy coat unnecessary even in the middle of winter. And I returned to write, totally ignorant to the news reports of a speech ripped, and new tension aflame between the Speaker and the President, two of the most powerful people in the nation.

Which leads to an interesting question – who has the most accurate picture of the current state of American politics? The cameras caught every nuance, every detail, providing a super-human observation of this particular moment in history. But it likely differed from those who witnessed it in person. So what picture is most accurate? Can both be? Technology brings us access but after this experience, I wonder if access and accuracy truly complement each other. Do the images, now available in the palm of our hands, bring us the accuracy we crave – or create a somewhat narrow perspective in which we formulate all our opinions and judgments that eventually help direct the nation?

I’m not sure how to answer that, but the importance of a nuanced perspective surfaced again less than 24 hours later as I witnessed the Senate’s vote on whether to remove the U.S. President.

The Senate gallery is different from the House, smaller as there are fewer lawmakers – 100 compared to 435 in the House. And, like the House, anyone can visit the Senate gallery – the balcony that overlooks the Senate chamber where votes and daily business take place.  But for certain high-traffic days, one needs a special ticket only available through a senator’s office… and luckily, I had one – a light blue ticket that only differed from the one from the previous night by color and the absence of an assigned seat.  The process for security remains the same, as the Senate chamber is also folded into the large Capitol building. But the path to the gallery, or at least the one I embarked on, is absent of the wide grand staircases. After checking electronics, one has to walk down a modern hall, wait for elevators to advance several floors to another set of winding narrow hallways, a security line, and finally the galley. At one point, it became very clear that I would not make the Senate’s vote, finding myself stuck at least 100 people back from the beginning of the line, where the final security checkpoint slowly processed attendees.

Black-and-white photos of senators doing any number of activities over the decades hung on the hallway walls, including a photo of two lawmakers laughing while riding an elephant during a circus visit. One window to my right allowed me to see the street, but to my left a window that obviously once faced outside now faced a wall. The color of the section clearly did not match the others – gray, contrasting with the creamy walls – and I stepped over to read a small brass plaque on the ledge. It marked a segment of the original U.S Capitol honoring the laborers, including enslaved African Americans, who built it in the late 1700s. It looked remarkably resilient for 200 years old, placed shortly after the Revolution, surviving the British burning of the Capitol in the early 1800s, the Civil War, and many, many more challenges. I wanted to reach out and touch it, but didn’t, too afraid of doing something wrong that might call attention to the prowling security.  Instead, it stayed a subtle reminder as the line moved on towards the next challenge to the Union.

Suddenly the pace of the security line picked up, and I entered the gallery as the senators prepared for the vote.

The Senate chamber did not shine quite as brightly as the House the night before, in part because fluorescent lights reflect off walls with a yellow tinge. A woman walked around the chamber, wearing a typewriter-like machine on suspenders, quietly typing as she faced those who spoke.  Young aides, dressed in black pants and white shirts floated constantly in and out of the room, delivering water glasses to the lawmakers who sat at assigned desks; some of the desks are from the 1820s but none looked demonstrably older than others. That’s not the case for the blue tapestry that hangs behind the Supreme Court Chief Justice who, dressed in black, entered the chamber shortly after one lawmaker described the setting as a “firewall meant to keep partisan flames from scorching (the) Republic”.

The Chief Justice called the Senate to order, and a simmering anticipation slowly lifted like a morning fog around the room as a woman read the first set of charges against the President. The vote began easily and without stress, feeling surprisingly routine for only the third time in American history the Senate considered removing a President. One man, with black horn-rimmed glasses, read each lawmakers name into a microphone, addressing them with a formality of “Mr.” or “Ms.” and prompting them to stand and reply their vote: “guilty” or “not guilty.”

My vantage point allowed me to see some Senators, but not all. And as the names continued, I peered around the gallery, observing the aides who stood by the doors to open and close them silently. Above the seats, there were a series of niches or indentions in the walls, where huge marble busts of men are displayed. As I turned, an imposing recognizable likeness sat over my shoulder: the bust of Andrew Johnson, the first American president ever impeached, who also faced potential removal from office by his peers. He’s the first president ever impeached, and the only one never elected to the presidency; He was Abraham Lincoln’s Vice President when Pres. Lincoln was assassinated, and he assumed the office only after the President’s death. I learned later these busts represent Vice Presidents – as the Vice President is the President of the Senate.

President Johnson’s looming presence called to mind his own journey towards impeachment.  In the 1860s, he had a reputation for getting into fights with citizens during rallies, differing greatly with members of his own party about how the nation should look after the Civil War, and igniting intense, visceral hatred from his peers across the political aisle.  But despite all of that, and his impeachment, his bust sits with others like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in the gallery where another President, hotly debated, faced the same fate.

The vote continued very anti-climactic. And at the end, the man taking the tally counted his votes by hand, pointing his pen at each mark as he silently tallied and announced the results.

The President found not guilty by the U.S. Senate.

And nothing shifted. The room didn’t feel any different. No one clapped or hissed, both explicitly prohibited. But the lack of any outburst gave way to an interesting cocktail amongst the crowd of quiet resignation: relief, antipathy, and clearly some disappointment.

Leaving the gallery involved the same maze of hallways, elevators, and side-stepping lines of those who looked for an opportunity to enter the Senate Gallery as well. But once outside the immediate area, the quiet halls led to a U.S. Capitol gift shop where only a handful of people browsed – and finally the exit, where a long set of stairs led to street level and an intersection where tourists posed for photos in front of the nearby Supreme Court.  Cars rushed by. Streetlights flipped red and green as the Washington D.C. evening commute started to gather speed. The abnormally-humid night before had turned into a freezing day of whipping wind and freezing drizzle, propelling me quickly down the street to the train station where I hoped to meet my babysitter, my 6-month-old and a train taking us to the airport. As I inhaled the cold air, I looked back at the mysterious, stately building that provides such a quiet backdrop to so many of our stories. I paused, but only for a moment, and then turned around to race down the hill to the next chapter.

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