Monday, January 27, 2014

Washington Social Diary

Temperatures will be hovering in the teens tomorrow night when President Obama travels this route, Pennsylvania Avenue, to the Capitol for his State of the Union address.
by Carol Joynt

Though we didn’t get as much snow as Philadelphia or New York, Washington last week, and going into this week, is gripped by the same brutal deep freeze. There’s no fun side to it, certainly not after the initial powdery snow hardened into ice, and temps in the teens cut sharply into the city’s southern nature. We like to act northern until we’re shellacked by winter weather. With the exception, perhaps, of a group of Georgetown University business school grad students who took advantage of the frozen C&O Canal (which rarely happens) for a game of “canal hockey.”
Making the most of the Washington deep freeze, Georgetown University students play "canal hockey" on the C&O Canal in Georgetown. Photo by Ryan Bowden.
Intrepid Georgetown University business school grad students, after a game of ice hockey on the frozen C&O Canal.
But the establishment will come out of hibernation briefly tomorrow night. We’re in the moment in Washington that is comparable to the entire federal government cramming for final exams. The result of all that prep and sweat will be presented to the nation when President Obama delivers his annual State of the Union Address. If you watch, or read it later, as you do consider this image: behind each sentence or group of sentences there’s much more going on than simply the crafting by the President and his speechwriting team.

Each legislative flight of thought, or actual proposal, has behind it a team of staff at the federal agencies, usually spearheaded by the Secretary of Wherever, and each agency is competing against the other, and lobbying, for real estate in the speech. Making the grade is making it into the speech. They burn the midnight oil on this project, and for months, and it’s too bad the process isn’t a reality show, which could make it more engaging for the public, having a chance to see the small ball aspects of government come together for the big reveal.
A White House photo of the 2013 State of the Union address.
That reality show would have to include the security preparations. If ever there was a reason for anti-anxiety meds for the protection forces of Homeland Security. Think about it. This is that rare occasion when the hierarchy of the full government comes together in one place, including, in addition to the House and Senate, the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs, the Cabinet, diplomats and typically the First Lady, too. There is a “designated survivor,” a member of the administration who is cabinet-level, joined by a few members of Congress, who do not attend; if the worst were to happen there would be someone to run the government. That element adds some drama, right?
A White House photo of the 2012 State of the Union. The words change, but the backdrop remains the same: the Vice President and the Speaker of the House.
For spectacle, there’s the President’s arrival in the House Chamber, which is very much a dance of protocol and blatant political ambition. The protocol dictates that the House members are seated first (it’s their half of the Capitol, after all), followed by the Senate. Everyone is announced with fanfare. The President, also formally invited, is the last to enter the room, announced in a heraldic manner by the Sergeant at Arms. A committee of House and Senate members escorts him and the task is a perk, because they get TV face time and can brag about it to the constituents back home. Same goes for the sharp-elbowed members who line the aisle – shaking his hand, pawing him, grabbing for hugs, asking for autographs – as he walks to the rostrum, where he’s greeted by the Vice President and the Speaker of the House.

The media, who receive advance copies of the speech – and numerous briefings, and report it all in advance – stay awake by looking for any diversions in the script and counting the numbers of times there is applause, standing or seated, and whether it’s everyone or only the Democrats while the Republicans sit on their hands. It helps the story if there’s a TV shot of some opposition member scowling, mouthing foul words, laughing at a proposal or, better still, nodding off as the speech drones on.
It's protocol that the Sergeant of Arms of the House announces the President's arrival in the Chamber. In 2011 that was Wilson "Bill" Livingood. Tomorrow night it will be Paul Irving.
It’s a big night in Washington and in years past I attended several times, but here’s how I watch it today, thanks to social media. With my iPad in my lap, I turn on the TV but turn off the volume. I go to Twitter, enter either #stateoftheunion or #SOTU, and follow the comments of others, which range from notable opinion makers to regular folks, and cover a spectrum of the vox populi that at best is wise observation, political passion and wit, and at worst, snark and hate. But it’s a riveting show.

Subjects to expect: the economy, jobs, affordable health care, war and peace, maybe some Sochi, and a subtle thread, from beginning to end, that’s politically mindful there are mid-term elections this year. A lame duck president likes to do well in that last national referendum of his policies.
The media count the numbers of ovations at the State of the Union. Here's one for First Lady Michelle Obama last year.

I’m a weather geek and a devoted viewer of The Weather Channel since its first days. Since NBC (and Bain and Blackstone) bought the cable network it has been shape-shifting into another Bravo, which is lame, but at least when a big storm happens the bosses have the good judgment to give the actual weather wall-to-wall coverage. And that’s when we get to watch Jim Cantore, who is a superstar among weather geeks.

When I heard that Cantore was assigned to the DC part of last week’s snowstorm, I sent him a DM on Twitter and asked if I may hang out at his live location and observe. He replied, “sure, come on down.” Incredible, right? Right.
The Weather Channel's Jim Cantore, live on the air, waiting for the snow to fall in Washington.
That’s how I spent Tuesday morning at a street corner on Capitol Hill, freezing, but in the company of Cantore, his producer Steve Dresner and shooter Mike Broleman. These people deploy to crazy weather wherever it happens, and they also know how to stay warm. Broleman had a little tent. Cantore and Dresner had layers and industrial strength gloves.

“Being a forecaster who’s already been here for two busts, yes, I’m a little concerned,” said Cantore, frustrated that the snow wasn’t falling on schedule. “I will quit coming to Washington if it doesn’t snow here. I’m serious, I won’t come back here; I don’t care if there’s 60 inches of snow forecast.” Fortunately, it eventually snowed. Not a lot, but enough to mean Cantore will return.
Cantore has more than a quarter million Twitter followers, and he checks in on them, and email, between live shots.
Weather Channel camera operator Mike Broleman is zipped inside that Pak Shack, because Weather Channel staff know how to stay warm in freezing temps.
When I arrived at The Weather Channel location, this and a camera set-up were all that was there. Cantore and his crew were off getting warm. Before going on air, Cantore slips on his Smartwool gloves, while producer Steve Dresner stands ready with his microphone. It's all a team effort.
Because he often doesn't know his weather assignments until the last minute, Cantore says his professional life "is a lot of moving parts."
A few nights later, it was the opening of a new Irish pub in Georgetown, Rí Rá. I stopped by on my way home from another party, not really sure what to expect, though I figured the crowd would be mostly DC locals. And it was, until through the swarm, at the end of the packed bar, I noticed a tall, slim man in a dark suit. It was Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley. At the risk of being called out as non-PC, so be it; he’s an attractive man.

O’Malley has a natural smile, which did not flag as other patrons began to come up to say hello or to ask for a photo. He was chatty and friendly. He was solo, with his security detail at a discreet distance. I asked if he’d had other business in town and he said he came to DC just for the opening of the pub. This is not far-fetched. He was born in Washington, and attended high school and college here, before law school at the University of Maryland.
Rí Rá Irish pub co-owner David Kelly with Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley.
Shortly after we started talking we were joined by two members of The Steve Miller Band, Jacob Petersen and Kenny Lee Lewis, who were in town for a private gig. They had plenty to talk about because O'Malley is also a singer and guitarist and has played in a band. There were pints hoisted, O'Malley admirers coming and going, and, again, lots of posing for photos.

A governor with the name O'Malley at an Irish pub named Rí Rá made sense. Still, let's not forget there's a long tradition among politicians, especially those with Irish blood, and running for office, of popping into a pub for a brewski. O'Malley's final term as governor is up and it's no secret he's interested in the Democratic ticket for the 2016 presidential race. O'Malley-Clinton, Clinton-O'Malley? Who knows, maybe one of these January nights, years down the road, instead of pubbing he'll be preparing for his own State of the Union.
Three musicians, having a chat: Jacob Petersen of The Steve Miller Band, Gov. Martin O'Malley, and also from the Miller Band, Kenny Lee Lewis.
Was it the blarney? O'Malley gets a laugh out of Petersen, while Lewis checks his phone.
A bar patron enjoys some face time with DC native and now Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley.
Rí Rá's David Kelly, CJ, and Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Photographs by Carol Joynt.

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt