Before the president could enter the House chamber to a standing ovation, the joint Congress had a colleague it needed to shower with applause first: Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
The Arizona Democrat, in her second appearance on the House floor since being shot in the head last January and her last before resigning her seat, was greeted with hugs as she walked through the chamber door by friend Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Arizona colleagues Democrat Raúl Grijalva and Republican Jeff Flake.
Giffords, wearing a Nantucket red jacket and an ear-to-ear grin, posed for pictures with Flake and Grijalva to the right of the dais where President Barack Obama would speak just moments later.
Before taking the podium to speak, Obama held Giffords in a long embrace to the boisterous applause of a packed chamber. The two exchanged words before he moved on to give what likely will be the most important State of Union address of his presidency to date.
It was just more than a year ago when Flake drove two hours from his Arizona home to Tucson upon hearing the news of the tragic shooting at Giffords’ “Congress on Your Corner” event, which killed six and gravely wounded the Congresswoman. It was just more than a year ago when Grijalva’s office took over the regular constituents’ duties of Giffords’ shop, so they could deal with the overwhelming flood of support from around the world.
But in that one short year, Giffords has begun to regain her strength and her voice — a feat no one might have imagined then. As Giffords clasped Grijalva’s hand and raised it to the sky, shaking it gently up and down, she sent a message to her colleagues back in the chamber and the rest of a watching country that perhaps she meant it when she said in her retirement video that she would be back.
Giffords’ husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, watched his wife from the first ladies box across the chamber, where he sat between Michelle Obama and Jill Biden.
Before entering, Kelly tweeted from his official account: “Thankful to be watching tonight’s #SOTU address next to @MichelleObama. Gabby’s attendance will be a proud moment for all of us.”
Giffords made her first return to the House floor in August, when she cast her vote in favor of hotly contested legislation to extend the nation’s borrowing capacity.