Marie Lopez Rogers was looking for a way to watch the State of the Union Address while she was in Washington last year. The Avondale, Ariz., mayor put in a couple of calls to her House member and asked someone at the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs if they knew a way for her to get into the House Gallery. She had been working with the administration on immigration, a major issue for her town.
Then she got a call from the White House the Friday before the address.
“We know you were trying to get into the Gallery,” the White House staffer told her. “We’re really sorry; that’s not going to happen.”
Rogers thought they were going to offer her a spot to watch the speech on television somewhere.
“Well, the first lady would like to know if you’d like to sit in the box seat with her,” the staffer said.
“You have to ask me?” Rogers laughed.
Getting an invitation to be one of the 20 or so people who sit with the first lady at the State of the Union is a rare honor.
The White House has already announced just a few of Michelle Obama’s guests for this year’s State of the Union. Many of these guests’ personal stories went viral on the Internet in the past two years. They include Jason Collins, the first openly gay NBA player, and Carlos Arredondo and Jeff Bauman, two men who were featured in the iconic photo in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon. Intel intern Joey Hudy also received an invite and is remembered as the little boy who piqued the president’s interest in science through a marshmallow cannon at the White House Science Fair.
Usually, the White House invites guests who highlight one of the policy priorities the president will address in his speech. For Rogers, who has been mayor for eight years, it was immigration.
For Peter Hudson, it was technology and health care innovation that got him there in 2013. Hudson is the CEO and cofounder of iTriage, a company that developed a smartphone app that allows users to find local health care providers, using public government data. He previously worked with the White House on several policy initiatives and spoke at a few health care events. But for Hudson, this was a special invitation.
“I was humbled by meeting the other amazing invitees,” Hudson said in an email. “True heroes, exceptional leaders, and fabulous business people.”
Hudson was among a list of exceptional people: Marine Sgt. Carlos Evans, who lost his legs and left hand fighting in Afghanistan; Desiline Victor, the 102-year-old Miami woman who stood in line for several hours to eventually cast her ballot.
Similar to Rogers, Hudson got a call the Friday before the speech. The White House doesn’t give a lot of guidance to its guests before the Big Show. They tell them that they should expect some media attention and that the cameras will show them with the first lady. There are no talking points, Rogers said. But there is one rule: Don’t tell anyone about the invite.
“You really can’t say that you’re going,” Rogers said. “[My friends] knew I was traveling to Washington, but they didn’t know what that meant”¦. Once they saw me on TV, I got all the phone calls and texts.”
Both Rogers and Hudson attended White House events in the past. But that’s not the only way the administration finds potential guests. The White House is looking for people with prominent public stories. Case in point: the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old girl who was shot and killed in Chicago before the 2013 address. Other guests had written letters to the president previously.
For many of the people invited, the experience is a thrill — a reception in the East Wing; photo op with the first lady and Jill Biden; being seen on national television; meeting Bo the dog. But one thing stood out, at least for Rogers.
“I’ve been to Washington many times and been in the gridlock of Pennsylvania Avenue,” she said. “But riding from the White House to the Capitol and there’s no one on the street, in a motorcade, was pretty exciting and kind of fun.”
Some Washington operatives may view these people as political props, meant to highlight the president’s priorities. But for these few special people, it’s much more.