Engel began his tradition of sitting on the aisle at his first State of the Union in 1989. His colleague, then-Rep. Sonny Montgomery (D-Miss.), mentioned that he was friendly with President George H.W. Bush and that he planned to sit on the aisle in order to greet him when he entered the House chamber. Engel asked Montgomery whether he could join him and fellow Rep. Mike Parker (D-Miss.), and Montgomery obliged. That evening, Engel sat on the aisle and met the president for the first time.
I always think its great that the president knows me by name and face, Engel says of sitting on the aisle. Having done it, its sort of become a tradition of mine.
Regardless of whether there is a Democrat or a Republican in the White House, he can be seen reaching out to shake that hand.
For me its respect, he says. I voted for Barack Obama. I like him, I think hes a good president. But if Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had won, I would be there shaking his hand.
While it is nice to honor the presidential office, Engel says the real reason he sits on the aisle is because his constituents back in New York love to see him on TV. When hes in his home district, voters often mention the State of the Union.
It could be September or October and constituents will say to me, Oh I saw you on TV! And Ill think it was a great interview and ask what I was saying and theyll say, No, you were shaking the presidents hand on the aisle! Engel says with a chuckle. As long as they love it, I love it.