WASHINGTON - Wondering how your small-town congressman scored a front-row seat at the State of the Union address and managed to shake hands with the president, enjoying a couple seconds in the spotlight?
Or why, even when surrounded by hundreds of raucous members of Congress, Supreme Court Justices who attend the speech remain almost statue still?
And what would happen if an unthinkable tragedy were to strike the U.S. House chamber during the big event, taking out the president, vice president, the cabinet and most of Congress all at once?
The answers lie here in ABC News’ list of the seven strangest State of the Union rituals:
1. Keeping Their Seats Warm (For Hours and Hours)
Members of Congress hoping to set up camp along the president’s path to the podium beware: You’ll have to claim your spot early — and in person. The rules stipulate that members may reserve their seats in the House Chamber only by physical presence. Unlike a movie theater, setting a coat or placard on the desired seat risks its removal by security. Some members reportedly wait as many as 10 hours to secure seats along the main aisle. But the reward just might be worth it: A good shot at a presidential handshake televised to the entire nation.
2. An Awkward Threesome
President Obama won’t be the only one on screen during his State of the Union remarks. In keeping with tradition, the president will hand both Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner an envelope with a printed copy of his remarks before taking the podium to deliver his remarks. For the most part, the vice president and the House Speaker will sit awkwardly in the same frame as the president during his speech, breaking for nods of approval and winces of disdain. Far from chums, Boehner has notably remained seated during a number of Biden’s standing ovations during the president’s speeches, creating some odd optics.
3. The One Who’s Left Behind
They may take separate planes while traveling, but both the president and vice president sit under the same roof for the State of the Union — not to mention just about every member in the presidential line of succession. That means the White House must have another successor lined up if something were to go terribly wrong. The “designated survivor’s” identity is kept secret until just before the president starts speaking and his or her location remains classified for security reasons.
4. The Stoic Supremes
Unlike just about everyone around them in the House chamber, the Supreme Court Justices are expected maintain their political impartiality during the president’s State of the Union address by refraining from clapping, standing or showing emotion.
Some members of the high court opt to sit the whole thing out. Chief Justice John Roberts said he was “very troubled” by the “setting, circumstance and decorum” of the speech as Congress “literally surrounds them” with applause and cheers. Justice Antonin Scalia said he’s skipped the event for more than a decade because “it has turned into a childish spectacle.” But in 2010, Justice Samuel Alito broke with the stoic tradition, famously shaking his head and mouthing the words “not true” after President Obama criticized the court’s landmark ruling on campaign finance.
5. The State of the Union Is for Lovers?
In an effort to ease the hyper-partisan tension in Congress, in recent years, members of Congress have broken the 200-year tradition of sitting with members of their own party for the address and instead they’ve paired up with colleagues from across the aisle. The so-called “date night,” first pushed by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, ahead of the 2011 State of the Union, has become a new institution in its own right that many say has eased some of the hyper-partisan tension on Capitol Hill.
6. Who Is That Guy?
Before President Obama makes his way through the busy House chamber to deliver his remarks, a man few will recognize will strut ahead of him and call out in his loudest voice “Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States!” This year, that man is Paul Irving, the Sergeant at Arms of the U.S. House of Representatives. Elected at the start of each Congress by its members, the sergeant is the chief law enforcement officer for the House of Representatives, protecting its side of the Capitol and office buildings and also has the distinction of being one of only three people to speak during the State of the Union address besides the president and the House Speaker (who offers a brief introduction of the president).
7. The Outbursts — on Twitter and Otherwise
The rise of social media has given way to a new age of real-time response during events like the State of the Union. By live-tweeting, members can voice their support or objections to the president’s vision from the comfort of their own seats — although not always unscathed. At last year’s State of the Union, Rep. Steve Cohen, R-Tenn., set the blogosphere on fire when he exchanged affectionate tweets with a Texas college student during the address. Cohen claimed 24-year-old Victoria Brink was his daughter although a DNA test subsequently proved otherwise. And in the House chamber the commentary can be equally feisty. Few can forget the GOP Congressman Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” moment at the State of the Union in 2009.