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Inside The Chamber During Joe Biden’s SOTU: Hugs, Hecklers And Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Hat

About a half hour after Joe Biden finished up a give-em-hell type of State of the Union speech, he was still in the House chamber, shaking hands, taking selfies and chatting up other senators in candid moments that were caught on C-SPAN. The president lingered for so long that some photographers joked that soon the House chaplain may show up to give the next morning’s prayer.

Finally, House Speaker Mike Johnson, still on the rostrum, called an end to the proceedings, and the TV lights dimmed. Biden got the signal that it was time to go, but even then it took him a few more minutes to exit.

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The speech and even Biden’s endurance in its aftermath should have provided some reassurance to Democrats fretting about Biden’s age and agility in recent months — as one prominent Hollywood backer put it to me the other day, the term is “freaking out.” The positive reaction to Biden’s speech, focused on his energy and vigor, was an indication that it was not so much what Biden said as how he said it, particularly when he responded to the occasional heckle or name checked individual members, like Lindsey Graham, who were left largely to just smile.

That was true inside the chamber, as covering a SOTU is far different than watching the spectacle play out on TV. Even as lights are turned up, cameras are freed from their typical fixed positions and a boom captures the cinematic sweep of the space, the coverage can miss some moments or clarify fleeting feelings of confusion.

Journalists are seated in the press gallery, located just above POTUS, the vice president and the speaker at the rostrum. It’s great for watching members and their reactions, the stone-faced silence of the Supreme Court or the occasional outburst in the visitors gallery, which happened again this year. To see the president, reporters typically have to crane their necks. Luckily, my seat gave a view down at Biden as he delivered his remarks, as well as Harris and Johnson, who stood and exchanged few words throughout the evening.

There are strict rules for the press during the speech — professional photographers are allowed, but iPhone photos, or snapshots of any kind, are verboten. As should be obvious for the media, no public display of approval or disapproval of any kind. No hats are allowed, which may be why so much media attention was paid to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) when, as Biden was entering the chamber, she put on her red MAGA cap.

Starting about an hour before events begin, there is much to see, as members arrive and stake out their seats. As they hug, chat and mingle, it’s a moment for people watching and even a bit of fashion police. Soon part of the floor was awash in white, as women Democrats wore the color to symbolize women’s suffrage. Staking out an aisle spot, Greene arrived in a red jacket and T-shirt with “say her name,” written on it, presaging her attention-getting moments to come. The biggest surprise in this pre-show was the appearance of George Santos, wearing a glittery collar, as if to show that he won’t wilt from the fact that it’s been only four months since he was expelled from the place. (Former members still have floor privileges).

It’s in this period, before the full force of primetime coverage, that members don’t at times don’t stick to the script of their respective political corners. At one point, Rep, Matt Gaetz (D-FL) wandered over from the Republican side of the aisle to the Democratic side, one of the few to do so, and started chatting with Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN). It all seemed friendly, and soon he was taking a picture with her phone of she and other members of the Squad.

As Biden started speaking, reporters were quickly reminded that, as great a spot as they have in the chamber, the acoustics leave something to be desired. With Biden’s hoarser voice, it was at times difficult to capture his entire sentences. During his exchange with MTG, for instance, I heard the president say only “illegals.” But even that was enough to know that this was a standout moment from the evening, as her shouts at Biden and his response for a point led me to wonder if they would have an ongoing discourse.

While perhaps a tad tamer than last year, there were other outbursts. As Biden started talking about crime, a middle aged man started shouting from the visitors gallery. We could hear words like “Marine,” but it was difficult to make out what he was talking about before he was escorted away. As it turned out, the man was the father of a Marine killed during the withdrawal of Afghanistan, and he had been shouting “Abbey Gate!”

These interruptions now have gotten so commonplace in State of the Unions that they are kind of baked in. Fifteen years ago, when Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouted “You lie” at President Barack Obama during a joint session of Congress, Wilson apologized and the House passed a resolution of disapproval. This year, when Rep. Derrick Van Orden (R-WI) yelled “lies” as Biden spoke, he was unapologetic. “Is it appropriate to tell the truth?” he said when asked by CNN’s Manu Raju about the decorum of the moment.

Earlier in the evening, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), on his 31st SOTU, said that what has changed are the number of these outbursts, particularly on the Republican side.

So too is the response of GOP colleagues who hold their tongues. In the post-speech spin area at Statuary Hall, Rep. Jake Ellzey (R-TX) told reporters afterward that when something like that happens, his strategy is to stare straight ahead, undoubtedly knowing that cameras are watching for reaction. As for Greene, he said, “Margie is very expressive,” probably well aware of the understatement.

That said, the White House is undoubtedly very pleased that the two most common media takeaways from the evening — the president’s energy and MTG’s exclamations — may have helped them make the election year contrast.

Later, Greene complained that the House sergeant at arms at one point told her to take off the hat given the rules of the chamber. In an interview with right wing site RSBN, Greene said she told him, “I’ll pay a fine, a warning, whatever there is, but I am not taking the hat off.” She was allowed to stay — which was probably good news for Democrats, who this morning cited Greene’s partisan display to counter GOP complaints that Biden’s address got too political.

The White House also pointed out that the nature of the attacks on the president had shifted from sleepy Joe to angry Joe. Just after the speech, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) told Fox News that during the speech, Biden “reminded me of an angry old man, standing on the porch, screaming to the kids, ‘Get off my lawn.” Yet as Cruz spoke, the network ran images of a rather jubilant Biden chatting up members of Congress, the kind of pressing of the flesh that has long been his element.

That continued even when the cameras were gone. Just outside the chamber, Biden still hung around, slowly making his way through a throng attendees, posing for group shots and at one point using someone’s back to sign an autograph. He finally left — and it was nearing an hour after the speech ended.

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