The Loneliest Camera

Posted January 29, 2008 at 6:45pm

In the hours leading up to Monday night’s State of the Union address, conservative bloggers were all abuzz over reports that Al-Jazeera would be in the people’s house for the big night, cheek-to-jowl with all the other networks covering the president’s speech. Yes, that’s Al-Jazeera, the Arabic television network perhaps best known for broadcasting messages from Osama bin Laden.

“Treason by the Democratic leadership” was the gist of the posts by breathless bloggers.

[IMGCAP(1)]But the reality wasn’t nearly so dramatic: Both Al-Jazeera and its sister, Al Jazeera English, have Washington bureaus and journalists accredited for Capitol Hill coverage. The network even covered the address last year, an Al-Jazeera spokeswoman tells HOH.

The network’s setup Monday night in Statuary Hall looked exactly like that of the dozens of others around it: a camera, lots of gadgety gear and an attractive on-air interviewer.

But while Members eagerly queued up to share their surely insightful dissections of the president’s speech with their constituents on the other networks, the line for Al-Jazeera was a little less crowded. Actually, make that nonexistent.

It seems many Members are leery of appearing on the network, said one producer who didn’t want to be named.

But a few Members did take a turn in front of Al-Jazeera’s lens. HOH spotted Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) doing an interview, and the producer says Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) also appeared before the network’s cameras Monday night.

Sanders tells HOH he’s willing to talk to any news outlet, including Al-Jazeera and even — gasp — Fox News. “They might have their own point of view, but I am free to speak my mind,” he tells HOH. “I think it’s appropriate to talk to any news organization.”

Another reason Sanders might have been willing to appear on the network: It’s available via satellite all over the country but via cable in only a few areas — including on his home turf in Burlington, Vt., and in the cities of Sandusky and Toledo in Ohio.

Ill Communication. Democratic schedulers were snickering Tuesday after a staffer from New York Rep. Michael Arcuri’s office sent an early-morning e-mail scrambling to scare up an extra ticket to the State of the Union address — a day after the big show. “I know it is probably too late and members are reluctant to part with their’s [sic] because you only get one, but if you would be willing to part with it, it would be doing me a huge favor,” Arcuri scheduler Mark Cornell wrote in an urgent e-mail to the Democratic scheduler list.

Cornell went so far as to say he’d “gladly consider loaning you our’s [sic] next year or the year after.” While veteran schedulers were a titter about the faux pas, Arcuri spokeswoman Marion Read tells HOH the joke’s on them. “It was a staffer’s attempt to be funny,” Read says. Arcuri wasn’t desperately trying to get another ticket. Actually, the Congressman gave away his extra ticket for the second year in a row to a New York high school senior from his district, Read says.

State of the State of the Union. The spectacle that is State of the Union night in the Capitol reliably offers heaps of people-watching, and HOH found Monday night as entertaining as the glitziest of red carpets. Putting on our best Joan Rivers impersonation, first, a few fashion notes:

• Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) stood out among the crowds of suits (even the colorful women’s ensembles) in a bright orange jacket of a shade that called to mind hunting safety gear, prompting speculation that the color choice was inspired by the presence of Vice President Cheney. Cheney, you might recall, once accidentally shot a hunting companion.

• A few Members stepped up their sartorial game, perhaps because of the preponderance of television cameras swarming the building. Among them was Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.). Spies say he looked particularly natty, tanner and at least a few pounds lighter. Looks like he’s laying off those frozen treats (Smith made his fortune in the frozen-foods biz). Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), too, got a thumbs-up for her post-recess look, which includes a slightly redder hair color and a well-rested visage, say HOH tipsters.

And a few tidbits from the floor of the House chamber:

• Some SOTU close-watchers noticed what appeared to be an interloper among the Members, Supreme Court justices, and Cabinet officials seated in the chamber. Josh Holmes, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), stood out as he sat among the high-profile VIPs waiting for the president’s speech. But he’s no imposter: Holmes tells HOH that he was just asked by floor staff to fill in a seat until some late Members arrived. When he was informed they were on their way, he vacated the prime spot before the speech got under way. “It was awkward but very cool,” he says of the brief stint.

• Former Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.) might have left office in 2005, but that hasn’t stopped him from attending every State of the Union address since. Greenwood was on the floor under House rules that permit former Members into the chamber. Even though Greenwood is a registered lobbyist — which usually would mean he couldn’t be on the floor — there’s an exception for “ceremonial” events like SOTU. A Greenwood spokesman says the former Congressman even got President Bush to sign his program.

Briefly Quoted

“I’m small potatoes.” — Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) on her endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) for the Democratic presidential nomination, compared to the dramatic nod that Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) gave the candidate.

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