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January 30, 2013

An Insider’s Take on the State of the Union

The State of the Union address is a grand tradition in American politics, when all the government elite come to Capitol Hill to hear the president’s briefing for the year. Millions of citizens watch it on their television sets, but very few outsiders are allowed into the Capitol for this exercise in American democracy.

Alyssa is an intern at PBS NewsHour Extra and was able to help the NewsHour crew cover the events of the night. We asked her to reflect on her experiences, and share what it’s like to be a part of such a historic event.


Alyssa, California, U.S.A.

As a 20-year-old newcomer to Washington, D.C., I was floored when I flashed the security officer at the gate my press pass and he let me walk right through a restricted area of the Capitol, I entered a world that lamentably few Americans get to experience firsthand. My team set up to report in Statuary Hall just outside the chambers where President Obama would deliver his address. We were surrounded by all the biggest names in media; every organization from Al Jazeera Arabic to NPR propped their bulky equipment up next to ornate statues.

I was surprised to hear journalists in the hall feeling jaded, most had been to the State of the Union before and weren’t inspired by the occasion. But no matter how disillusioned everyone claimed to be, even the veteran and hotshot journalists flocked to the middle of the hall, wide eyed to see the procession of government officials to the speech. I was overcome with awe to see all the politicians who represent our nation only a few feet away, laughing together, arm in arm with their guests and spouses. I started tearing up when I ran into my hometown congressman and again when I saw the Supreme Court justices walk by. To look into the eyes of the members of the government I have studied, questioned and revered for so long was deeply humbling.

Most of the media is kept outside of the chamber where the State of the Union is held, but are able to catch politicians as they exit.

Most of the media is kept outside of the chamber where the State of the Union is held, but are able to catch politicians as they exit.

An unusual calm overcame the tribes of press teams in Statuary Hall as the State of the Union address began. A man resembling a pirate from CNN smiled at me, noticing my almost unreasonable euphoria and said, “this is your day, kid, isn’t it?”

When the speech was over, a stream of representatives (some fleeing the press and some flocking to us) intersected with a stream of government staffers, creating a nearly impermeable moving web of bodies.

I was honored to dart through the crowd, pick out the representatives we wanted to interview and escort them to the NewsHour camera. I realized that like the press members, most politicians were exhausted by the routine State of the Union fanfare, but everyone had a twinkle of excitement in their eyes to take part in this government-media dance, vying for one another’s attention and business cards.

By midnight, the hall had practically emptied. The pageantry was over and the statues in the hall could go on looking noble, unfettered by the flashing of cameras. I left Statuary Hall with an appreciation for the government through a more human dimension and a visceral, passionate fascination for what is to come for the powerful individuals at the Capitol and the hundreds of millions who they represent.

Alyssa is currently an intern at NewsHour Extra. She is also attending a semester journalism program at American University in Washington, D.C.

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