Watching the Audience at the State of the Union

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The audience has a long history of giving lively performances — whether it’s because they’re yelling, “You lie!” or throwing shoes or protesting so much that Hamlet determines his father was indeed murdered by that slime Claudius. But last night the audience (as seen from the House press gallery that sits above and behind the President’s podium) was striking for its calmer-than-usual demeanor. The find-your-buddy pairing of Republicans and Democrats left the room rather somber, and, in some cases, downright stone-faced.

That said, there was plenty of friendly hubbub as America’s government filed in and found their seats. Senators Murkowski and Mikulski, in a challenge to caption-writers everywhere, walked in together. Senators McCain and Kerry, two Johns perhaps bonded over their failed presidential campaigns, settled with retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman in the front. Hillary Clinton lingered in her handshake with Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the judges and cabinet being some of the last to enter. And the First Lady gave her waves, to loving applause, before sitting down with the human anecdotes Obama would use in his speech to exemplify the American spirit.

Some legislators made their pairings with a sense of humor. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill buddied with the new Republican senator from Kansas, Jerry Moran. They are two legislators normally separated by the aisle but also, and perhaps more bitterly, by rival football teams. “Glad that seat mate for tonight is new R Sen Jerry Moran from KS,” she said over Twitter. “He’s also KU grad.The D v R thing is probably easier than Tiger v Jayhawk”.

Earlier in the day, at the Senate lunches, McCaskill told reporters that she had actually suggested cross-pairing at the State of the Union when she had first come to the Senate. “So – what is it? – I was country before country was cool? I was bipartisan before bipartisan was cool,” she said, to much guffawing. (After the event was over, she ventured the prediction that there would be bipartisan mingling at these speeches every year from here on out.)

During Obama’s speech, the stoicism of Rep. Michele Bachmann — who was soon to give the somewhat controversial Tea Party response — was striking. For much of the address, she stared at her program like someone had told her next week’s winning lottery numbers were hidden inside. Minute after minute she sat, withholding her applause, while those around let their approval loose — only giving in on a few occasions (and then without any joy), as when Obama mentioned repealing a provision of the health reform law that subjects small businesses to onerous tax code requirements.

In the press gallery, one could hear mention of various ice-related terms in reference to Bachmann, with one reporter going so far as to suggest she betrayed all the emotion of a Sith Lord. Bachmann’s absolute non-response was only topped by that of the military men when Obama celebrated the fact that “Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.”

In past years keeping track of the “partisan ping pong,” as Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley put it to TIME, would have kept the press gallery spectators plenty busy. But the mixed crowd was a much more tempered one. And Obama’s prepared remarks were aging news, having circulated hours before the speech. So it was hard to keep the mind from wandering to more superficial ground — whether getting an aerial look at the men’s combovers or contemplating what inspires female legislators to wear blindingly bright pant suits, often in some shade of red.

Scanning the crowd — the honored guests, the students huddled along the back walls and aides bursting up the aisles — there seemed to be clear classes of response. There was the adamant pet-cause holler, the obligatory golf-clap approval, the begrudging ovation and the ever-rare joyous agreement.

Perhaps the best break in the perfunctory business was when Obama made his announcement that he would sign no legislation that came to his desk with an earmark attached. McCain hopped up out of his seat and gave a rousing round of applause. He flashed a smile that one imagines has been getting a lot of days off since the election and responded with such general enthusiasm that the people around him nudged each other and pointed their thumbs in his direction, indicating to just get a load of this guy.

The audience together gave one great seal of approval that might have rivaled past years (or McCain’s anti-earmark jamboree). As he wrapped up, Obama said that there was no one present who “would trade places with any other nation on Earth.” And the people cheered like keeping their spot in this particular country actually depended on the noise they generated. It was a nice note to end on. Thinking that no matter how awkward or bureaucratic or mired in difference people become, shameless patriotism will always be the biggest seller at the State of the Union.

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