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At the State of the Union, it’s all about making an entrance, and the day before the big night, organizers rehearsed the most important entrance of them all.
Under the bright lights of a nearly empty House chamber Monday morning, someone simulated the famous rap of the speaker’s gavel by smacking a fist against a cardboard-bound notebook.
The knocking signaled House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving. Walking down the center aisle, he stopped at the third row from the back and deliberately extended his arm to push the button that activated a microphone poised delicately on the seat at his left.
“Mis-ter Speak-er?” an amplified Irving boomed, his voice rising at the end, as if in a question. “The President. Of the. United States.”
The videographers and photographers who will document Tuesday evening from the ground level began to move backward slowly, practicing their reverse course through the well of the House as they snapped pictures and maneuvered cameras for effect.
Irving was joined by his counterpart, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, and they stood on either side of a Barack Obama stand-in: a mustachioed gentleman in a denim shirt with an ID badge hanging on a lanyard around his neck. He smiled and waved at the empty visitor galleries above him and shook hands with the staffers who were standing at seats by the aisles and in the front rows.
Then they did it all over again.
This is probably the closest these State of the Union coordinators will get to the spotlight of the highly anticipated, annual presidential address, with the exception of the sergeants-at-arms and Irving’s deputy, Kerri Hanley, who introduces the arrivals of senators, the dean of the diplomatic corps, the Supreme Court justices and the president’s Cabinet.
Without their work behind the scenes, the pageantry of the event wouldn’t be remotely possible.
Bill Sims, the director of House Chamber Security, has been helping run the show since 1987, when he became the director of Doorkeepers. That office oversaw State of the Union logistics until 1995, when the task became the jurisdiction of the House Sergeant-at-Arms, and Sims was hired to take on a similar role under then-Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood.
Sims is in charge of coordinating all the entrances and communicating with his team via radio to bring in groups of very important people from the holding rooms connected to the House chamber.
He also helps ensure that first lady Michelle Obama’s entrance doesn’t coincide with other arrivals to allow the crowd to give her its undivided attention.