WASHINGTON — For the State of the Union squatters, the wait can be seven hours or more. You read the newspaper. You sign letters to constituents. You grumble about the rookies who think that — on this night, in this place — you can save a seat with a little paper sign instead of a bona fide, duly elected representative’s rear end.
The payoff for all of that lasts about five seconds.
But oh, those are five good seconds. There’s you, on national TV. And the leader of the free world seems to be laughing at your shared, private joke.
“I said, ‘Don’t forget us in North Carolina!’ . . . And he would say, ‘How could I?’ ” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., asked what he actually says to President Barack Obama when the two of them shake hands. “And we would erupt in laughter.”
They’ll be there again Tuesday night, staking out seats close enough to touch Obama as he walks into the House chamber.
For the people on the aisle, the State of the Union is a rare night when a low-ranking legislator can score both a TV appearance and a personal audience with the president.
Just try to ignore the elbows thrown by your colleagues. And be brief.
“You can’t have a dissertation, you know what I mean? So it would be, ‘Stand by Israel, now,’ or ‘Stick with Israel, now,’ ” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., recounting what he used to say to President George W. Bush. “Bush would usually say, ‘Oh, I believe that.’ ‘Oh, I will.’ “
The squatters on the House aisle are now a familiar part of the State of the Union ritual — a signal that the night has evolved from from a speech into a show, and then from the president’s show to more of an ensemble piece.
On Tuesday, for instance, a variety of legislators have invited their own politically symbolic guests to sit in the House gallery and draw attention to a personal cause. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill., will bring an illegal immigrant. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, will bring fiery anti-Obama rocker Ted Nugent.
This is the newfangled way to grab some of the president’s spotlight. The old-fashioned way — dating at least to the late ’60s — has been to reach out and grab the president himself.
“You would get a lot of calls from back home” afterward, said former Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., who first did it with President Jimmy Carter. A longer-serving member, Rep. William Natcher, D-Ky., had invited Kildee to join him in waiting. There were cookies. And then, after Kildee had shaken the president’s hand, he found his own constituents looked at him in a different light.
“People would say, ‘Gosh, I saw you shaking hands with the president.’ So you had that advantage,” Kildee recalled.
He did it again and again, shaking hands with Democrats (“You’re doing really good in Flint,” he told President Bill Clinton, meaning Flint, Mich.) and Republicans. Most constituents didn’t mind these bipartisan handshakes. Kildee’s mother hated them.
“She did not like Reagan. She said, ‘You don’t have to smile so much when you shake hands with him,’ ” Kildee said. After that, the congressman tried to look a little less happy while glad-handing the 40th president. “I was a little more neutral about that. Took my mother’s advice.”
It was not always this way. In President Lyndon B. Johnson’s first State of the Union speech, members simply clapped and nodded as Johnson passed down the aisle. Three years later in 1967, two legislators reached out to shake his hand.
Today, by contrast, there is so much competition for aisle seats that the House leadership must lay out ground rules.
“Members will not be allowed to reserve seats prior to the joint session by placement of placards or personal items. Chamber Security may remove these items from the seats,” said a note sent out Monday by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the majority whip. “Members may reserve their seats only by physical presence.”
The key is the wait. Members of Congress, as a class, don’t wait for much of anything. Not meetings. Not elevators. Not seats on a flight. On Capitol Hill, they ride in a special subway to an office building less than three blocks away.
In this crowd, the aisle-seat squatters distinguish themselves by a simple tolerance for sitting still.
“It’s been earlier and earlier, you know, as the years go by, because other people have caught on. Now it’s about 10 or 12 hours earlier,” said Engel, a congressman who might be best known for his years of presidential handshakes. He was so grateful to the legislator who introduced him to the aisle, former Rep. Gillespie “Sonny” Montgomery (D), that he traveled to Meridian, Miss., to attend Montgomery’s funeral in 2006.
Then, finally, the president. You had better have something rehearsed.
It could be a concern from folks back home. A joke from the campaign trail. (Butterfield and Obama talk about the time they were shaking hands at the same event and a voter with long fingernails somehow cut Butterfield deep enough to require a medic.) Or something totally unexpected.
“Mr. President, I wish you peace,” said then-Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, when Bush walked by at the height of the Iraq war. Kucinich was a bitter critic of the war and of Bush. But he wanted Bush to know he understood the personal toll the conflict must have been taking.
” ‘Dennis,’ he said, ‘I really appreciate that,’ ” Kucinich recalled. “He said, ‘I know you mean that.’ “
This year, the ranks of the old-time squatters will be thinner. While stalwarts such as Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and Al Green, D-Texas, remain, Kucinich and former Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, one of the few Republicans on the aisle, both lost races last year. Kildee retired after 36 years in Congress.
“I’ll probably watch it on TV,” Kildee said. “I’ll see how I kind of looked,” he said, for all those years.