The State of the Union speech is defined by repetition: for more than a century, a president has entered the same House chamber every year to speak before members of Congress, media and the American people.
Another, lesser-known tradition is one lawmaker’s personal quest to be seen with the president before each speech.
Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York is captured year after year on screen, near the central aisle of the House chamber, shaking hands with the president, as the president approaches the dais for the speech.
Engel and his trademark mustache don’t get prime-time attention through sheer luck: the veteran lawmaker Engel shows up to the chamber as early as possible, and waits for hours to stake out his spot. He arrived at 8:30 a.m. this morning.
“It appealed to me 27 years ago when I was a freshman, because you can get on TV shaking the president’s hand,” Engel said in an interview ahead of today’s speech.
The 14-term lawmaker quickly realized that his constituents responded positively to seeing him shake the president’s hand — so he kept doing it.
“They love to see their member of Congress on TV. They love to know their member is right there participating. A lot of people watch it,” Engel said.
Rep. Eliot Engel explains why he waits at the House chamber for more than 12 hours to shake the president’s hand.
That was certainly true in the past. But television ratings for the annual speech have been declining recently.
President Obama drew 31.7 million viewers last year, down from a high of 52.3 million viewers for his first State of the Union address in 2009, according to Nielsen.
Regardless of how many people tune in, one thing is clear: Engel will be there for his three seconds of on-air SOTU fame.
Engel said he’ll get plenty of work done today while he saves his spot in the chamber — especially now that he has email set up on his iPad. He said he would also read a newspaper to pass the time.