How the White House Invites People to the State of the Union

The White House searches for people who highlight certain policy initiatives. Here are some of those guests’ stories.

The First Lady's Box at last year's State of the Union. One of those guests, Avondale, Ariz., Mayor Marie Lopez Rogers, wearing red, shares her story.
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
Jan. 26, 2014, 11:56 p.m.

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.

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