The State of the Union address captures America’s attention more than almost any other political event. Over 20 cameras are set up in National Statuary Hall, just off the floor of the House. Celebrities are invited (an American flag bandana-strapped Willie Robertson, of Duck Dynasty fame, told a reporter “I’m just taking it all in, brotha”). The entire Capitol Hill police force is on call. More than 30 million people watch.
So it’s no wonder that some members wait all day to grab prime seats in the middle aisle of the chamber, close enough to grab the eye or hand of the president as he walks by. The tradition dates back decades. More than 20 years ago, the late Rep. Sonny Montgomery pulled aside then-freshman Rep. Sanford Bishop and told him, “This is where I sit for the State of the Union, but in order to get this seat, I get here early in the morning.”
“My constituents back home are always excited to see their representative on the State of the Union,” Bishop, now a House veteran, recalled Montgomery saying. “So I think it would be a good practice for you if your constituents could see you. It means a lot to them, and a lot to you.”
Bishop told TIME he got to the Capitol at 8:20 a.m.—President Barack Obama was expected to begin speaking at 9 p.m.—to grab his seat. When asked if he was wearing a red vest on purpose, Bishop grinned and said, “It’s an eye-catcher.”
Reps. Eliot Engel, Billy Long and Janice Hahn, among others, were firmly planted by 5:30 p.m. The only times they left were for bathroom breaks (Hahn had Long’s back) and for a 30-minute span as bomb dogs sniffed the premises.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who will give the Republican response to the president’s speech in Spanish, teamed up with Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) to save her spot. When Frankel offered that they both get there early, Ros-Lehtinen joked, “Why don’t I leave that up to you.”
“She’s going to try to go to the Republican side thinking no one will try and get too close to the president,” added Ros-Lehtinen, who noted Frankel was wearing her party’s red color. “So she’ll have better luck there.”
Of course, there are some who are less enthusiastic.
When asked if he would block off a seat, veteran Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said, “No. That’s crazy.”