While the rest of the country waits another two days for Super Bowl Sunday parties, a certain crowd in Washington has already blown some of their party budget. For them, Super Bowl happened eleven days earlier on State of the Union Wednesday. As you gear up for the Super Bowl, consider the following list of ways that State of the Union viewers of DC celebrated, and see if you can top it. Please.
Where to watch the big event: The watchers tend to gather in Georgetown, on the Hill, and occasionally in Dupont Circle. I choose a certain bar on North Capitol. Outside, police car lights flash blue as security details escort politicians past the barricades blocking off blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue. Inside, the air holds a tension not unlike the buzz of Super Bowl parties’ minutes before kick-off. But, when you walk into a State of the Union gathering, you’ll find no nachos, no chicken wings and no chili. It just wouldn’t go over well to belch or spill on one’s white shirt and tie. Do you worry about bumping into an ex at your local Super Bowl party? Washingtonians worry about bumping into their boss on State of the Union Wednesday.
Hill staffers and lobbyists are enjoying sushi and crab cakes. One man in a gray suit and shiny red tie orders vanilla ice cream. It’s not even topped with hot fudge sauce. 8:15. Fifteen minutes from the main event and there’s not a bowl of beer nuts in sight. No one notices.
What we talk about during the big event: Who has time to talk when there are so many asses to kiss? The Blackberries are in overdrive as people text and e-mail the staff of the politicians captured on the screen. One member of the House is yawning. A senator’s ill-timed frown is killing his credibility as a healthcare advocate. A third can’t fake liking the Democrat beside him nearly enough to fool the camera. For every gaffe, there’s a camera watching. For every camera shot, there’s a viewer somewhere inside the Beltway eager to “help” the politician by lobbing a warning note. On any given Super Bowl Sunday, people talk about the game or the commercials. Here, we watch, text our cronies, and try to guess whom others are texting.
What Obama talks about during the big event: We really are listening. But, generally, Obama’s words are grist for the e-mails flying around and the Facebook notes posted by those not “in” enough to have anyone to text. What the words really mean can be dissected later when we’re not so busy. If we’re still too busy the next morning, the news correspondents and pundits will have honed their opinions by then and we can just parrot theirs.
Do we miss having those great Super Bowl commercials? Not when every camera close-up presents a “guess the politician” opportunity. On Super Bowl Sunday, Budweiser brings out the Clydesdales and guys throw crystal balls in Doritos ads. On State of the Union Wednesday, Hill-savvy viewers revel in showing off their knowledge of on-screen politicians, the cronies beside them, and the idiots who picked out their suits. Viewers are most likely to talk to, or at, others in the bar when talking about whom they know on screen. They’re practically social for a few minutes.
Two women bemoan the plight of First Ladies always getting stuck beside people the President wants to recognize during his speech. Representative John Boehner’s tan warrants a few cracks about tanning beds in Ohio. But when Senator Harry Reid yawns, all noise ceases.
“Did he just yawn?” someone finally whispers.
“No,” a Democrat says. He peers into his drink, finishes it in one swallow and shakes his head. “Definitely not.”
Scrutinizing politicos caught off-guard on television may not sound like as fun as Super Bowl commercials. It doesn’t come close. But it’s a Beltway thing.
What State of the Union viewers love even more those close-ups: Joe Biden. He’s as big a crowd-pleaser as a Super Bowl Sunday streaker. More than once, Biden casts a sideways glance toward Nancy Pelosi as she springs up to clap. Smile firmly in place, Pelosi glances his way. Another second passes. Biden pushes himself out of his chair, as if once again forced to answer the door or take out the trash. He claps alongside her. People around me lower their Blackberries and laugh.
“He’s the kind of guy you can have some beers with,” one man says. “A lot of beers.”
Someone else says, “I hear he’s scared of Pelosi.”
“Never,” says a lobbyist, eyes still on the Blackberry. “But they hate each other.”
The chuckles fade away. No one dares look at each other. They return to their own Blackberries.
Drinking while viewing: Someone hands me a print-outs of the Huffington Post_’s State of the Union Drinking Game 2010. It offers more than enough opportunities to get sloppy drunk: “_Obama says jobs’—Drink one shot, and two if you’re unemployed” plus "Joe Biden laughs inappropriately—Three shots!" On Super Bowl Sunday, no one needs an excuse to drink. No one has to hear the words “Congressional leadership” before downing a shot. If anything, they’ll drink even faster if you say “Congress.” But we are here: State of the Union Wednesday.
The drinking game print-outs are set aside once Obama begins talking. Chardonnay, not beer, sets the tone. And no can get a second drink once Obama begins talking. Even the bartenders watch with rapt attention.
Cheerleaders and women in generally sexy clothing: Capitol Hill is where sexy comes to die. It’s hard to look sexy when wearing the same navy blue suit you wore all day on the Hill. If you turned to the State of the Union address seeking sexy clothing, you got Nancy Pelosi’s necklace. And that’s not saying much.
As for cheerleaders with bare legs and spangly uniforms? We’ve got the anti-cheerleaders, led by none other than Supreme Court Justice Alito. No one anticipated a judge calling out Obama’s words as untrue. The Huffington Post drinking game doesn’t tell us how much to drink when a judge acts out. Eyes widen. Then the viewers around me shake their heads and take an even longer drink. To be caught out without a planned response sucks in DC, and especially on State of the Union Wednesday.
Fake-outs: It’s impossible to predict how a Super Bowl game will end. The final minutes on the clock could bring a touchdown. A fake field goal attempt could end the night on a anti-climactic note. But someone in the White House knows how the State of the Union address will end, and that someone’s best-laid words, like a football late in the game, got fumbled this time around.
Obama’s scaled heights with his rhetoric. He’s advanced toward the goal line on a key phrase, “It (the spirit of determination and optimism) lives on.” Good stuff to win him a needed victory in the midst of a recession. But now—a fumble.
Is it the too-long pause to catch his breath? Should he not have lowered his voice for those final lines that fizzled in the quiet? The last lines slow us down to a quietness we don’t want. Like a faked punt, they leave us wanting more. Then he’s done. Game over.
We turn to each other, unsure. Is it really over? If so, we’re not sure what to say. Finally, we shrug on our coats, put away the Blackberries and head out into the cold night.
The morning after: When you wake up the morning after Super Bowl Sunday, you might be a touch hungover. You might wish you hadn’t bet so much on the losing team, and you might wonder if that last dozen wings were really necessary. But here’s what probably won’t happen: the team captains won’t e-mail you, asking for a donation.
President Obama’s e-mail with the subject header “I cannot do it alone” hits my inbox at 12:13 a.m. He’s seeking a monthly donation of $15 to help fuel the fight for the middle class. He wants some of the money I might throw in a hat for beers on Super Bowl Sunday. He wants me to see the e-mail when I wake up, hopefully high enough on the State of the Union rhetoric and employed enough to donate.
Millions of Americans got the same e-mail. Many responded. In the District, State of the Union Wednesday ended with a flurry of Facebook posts about how much Obama rocks and how he’s still the man. Elsewhere in the country, unemployment’s higher and the State of the Union may have gone unwatched by many. But, if people in DC turned State of the Union viewing into a social scene so wonky it can never really rival Super Bowl Sunday, at least some of us took out our credit cards Thursday morning. We donated to a higher cause.