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Washinton Celebrates its own Tradition

January 26, 2007

Washington D.C. – It is a Tuesday night mid- January. Football season is quickly heading towards its decisive moments, and the excitement is growing all over the country.

Around 8pm crowds start gathering across town. It is a stream of people of all ages, sexes, origins. There are students in jeans, young professionals in casual attire, and high-level managers in fancy suits.

Bars fill up rapidly with patrons jockeying for positions close to a big screen TV in the corner. Beer begins to pour in every glass as friends exchange views on the most recent developments and argue over what is to be expected from the night.

No, no matter what you might think, we are not talking about the Superbowl here. It is not the NBA final fours, or any type of College ball game. This would have been the case had we been in Pittsburgh, or Cleveland. But we are in Washington DC and Tuesday was the night of the State of the Union Address, the super-final of this town’s favorite sport: politics.

According the US Bureau of Labor Statistics over 230,000 people were directly employed by the Federal Government in Washington DC in 2006. Of those who work in the private sector, the majority does so for companies who rely on government contracts. With over 180 embassies and hundreds of international organizations (like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund) headquartered in D.C. many of the foreigners who live here also have politically-related jobs. According to a study conducted in 2002 by Stephen Fuller, professor of Public Policy at George Mason University, on behalf of the National Capital Planning Commission, around 10,000 foreign workers were employed, in Washington DC, by the foreign missions alone.

In short, politics is the District’s number one industry and overwhelmingly the city’s primary source of income.

All things considered it is no surprise that D.C. becomes animated with such anticipation when the Commander-in-Chief steps up to the podium to addresses the nation.

Rishi works for a consulting firm with offices scattered throughout the U.S. “My parents live in India and once I reminded them about it, and they watched it on C-SPAN from India,” he recalled. Rishi himself watched the speech at home on Tuesday with his roommate as he was doing laundry. “I started watching the State of the Union Address when Clinton became president. I watch it because I like to watch our Commander-in-Chief and president speak. It is really a formality – but it is also a chance to rally up support throughout the nation for their causes and if you are lucky, when you have an eloquent president such as Clinton, you might catch glimpses of brilliance and inspiration. I guess this is the real reason I watch it. We don’t see many public speeches by our politicians anymore.”

Washington DC is a city that swings heavily for Democrats. In the latest round of elections in November 2006 the new mayor, Democrat Adrian Fenty, was elected with the 88.6 percent of the vote against a mere 6.2 percent collected by the Republican opponent David Kranich.

With a divisive Republican president, part of the fun of watching the SOTU for the many DC democrats is to find ways to make fun of George Bush.

The 2007, SOTU drinking game, circulating mostly via email throughout the day, was the preferred way to mock the Commander-in-Chief. The competition begins with a group of friends, a sizable amount of alcohol, and a TV tuned into the news channel of choice. The rules require at least one white guy in a suit and one a student in worn-out jeans, pitchers of beer and shot glasses.  A long series of instructions determine the different on screen actions that will dictate when and what the participants are required to drink. “Whenever George W. mentions the liberation of the freedom-loving Iraqi people, the last person to grab his throat in a choking motion has to drink four shots of beer,” states rule number one. While number three prescribes; “Whenever the speech is interrupted by applause, the last person to stick one of the American flag toothpicks into the soft French cheese from a distance of two feet drinks two shots of beer. The white guy in the suit gets an extra chance each round.”

While many SOTU watchers are intrigued by the prospects for humor, others consider themselves serious and dedicated watchers. April is in her early twenties and works on the Hill. On this particular Tuesday evening she went to her boyfriend’s house with a few friends. “We did not have cable but we bought rabbit ears over the weekend to pick up basic channels,” she said. “We had a glass of wine and tried to figure out who the camera zoomed in on at various points.” Her commitment to political oratory didn’t end when President Bush stepped down from his podium however. “We watched Senator Webb’s rebuttal too,” April added. “Although without CNN and C-SPAN we could not watch the continued commentary and the interviews with the members of congress.”

Other former DC residents can attest that the political addiction instilled in them while living in the capitol proves to be a habit difficult to give up. Laurel, who used to work in Congress, now lives in London where she is pursuing a Masters degree. “I stayed up until 2 am to watch it in a hotel room in Dublin – where I was traveling – and I made my traveling companions watch it too, even though they were not interested. I entertained myself by looking for members of Congress I recognized,” she said over the phone. “I just wished I had my Blackberry back so that I could have been in contact with my old coworkers when senators and members made funny faces.”

The Jan. 23 SOTU proved to be a first for some foreigners residing in DC. Cecilie is a Norwegian who has lived in DC for about two years attending graduate school and studying international affairs and one of the city’s numerous universities. She had watched bits of the SOTU in the past, but Tuesday night was the first time she followed it in its entirety. Cecilie’s preferred way to watch the national address was in the company of friends and a few pitchers of beer at a local bar. So as a first-timer, what did she think of the speech? “I didn’t feel Bush said anything I haven’t heard from him before, but it makes it more fun to watch it with people in a bar,” she said. “I mean, you can only do that in DC.”

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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