Old Statuary Hall comes alive after the president's address

January 29, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- It is a soaring, half-domed hall, boarded by marble Corinthian columns and heavy scarlet brocade draperies.

Andrew Jackson was inaugurated here when a severe blizzard forced the ceremony inside. Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution, once received a tumultuous greeting in this hall. And a disheveled young congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, started his career in the rear of this chamber in the 1840s.

Today, the old House chamber is known as Statuary Hall. And after each State of the Union address, it is the scene of a political carnival, an electronic food fight of quips and sound bites.

Television cameras, garish lights and journalists crowd into this historic hall to await the members of Congress, who swarm in minutes after the speech and become Monday-morning quarterbacks.

"I thought the speech was long," one congressman told a radio reporter last night after she thrust a microphone in his face.

"He's got a lot of nerve handing out ultimatums," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., told a phalanx of reporters, referring to President Bush's call for Congress to pass his proposals by March 20.

The congressman had drifted away into the sea of faces when another reporter asked him about the speech. "I think he's got a heck of a lot of nerve," Mr. Schumer repeated.

Some congressmen and senators -- including Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., R-Fla. and Sen. Jim Sasser, D-Tenn. -- stood off to one side, patiently waiting for their TV interviews to begin.

A television camera was plopped near a bronze floor plaque marking the spot where John Quincy Adams -- "Old Man Eloquent" -- once sat. He suffered a stroke after giving an impassioned speech against the peace treaty ending the Mexican War.

"Congressman Machtley?" one smiling producer asked. "You can get right behind Senator McCain."

There are harried calls of "Senator!" and "Congressman, CNN this way!" Press secretaries pull their bosses toward the network cameras or hometown press.

"A very strong speech," said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas. "I think he's going to get the support of the American people. . . . It deserves bi-partisan support. This was damn good policy."

The senator was soon carried away by what had all the makings of a Moscow bread riot.

"I thought it was a bell-ringer and very well done," said House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, R-Ill., who was immediately surrounded by a throng of tape recorders and note pads. He welcomed the part of the president's speech that eased business taxes.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., chose to release a statement to reporters. Even before the president's address ended, a Dole aide walked through Statuary Hall handing out a one-page gushing review to those crowded around tiny TVs.

"He unveiled a responsible, compassionate plan for economic growth, health care reform, education, defense reductions and securing a new world order. . . ," said the release.

"It was a little speech," said Jesse Jackson, who is a "shadow" U.S. senator trying to persuade Congress to back statehood for the District of Columbia. "I kept waiting for the boldness, the imagination."

A cameraman motioned frantically for Mr. Jackson, who stepped toward the harsh lights. Standing before the camera, he said: "I kept waiting for the boldness" and noted that the president could find money to help Kuwait but not to rebuild America.

"I was very disappointed. It was warmed over Reaganomics," said Rep. Larry Smith, D-Fla. Although the president offered health insurance tax credits for the poor, he didn't address health care for other Americans. "I was really surprised," he said of the speech. "It was kind of a hodgepodge."

But Rep. Fred Grandy, R-Iowa, better known to millions of Americans as Gopher on the TV sitcom "The Love Boat," was pleased with the speech and hoped it would rally Republicans. "I think this is a battle plan," said the bespectacled congressman, who has traded his short white pants for a gray suit.

The tax proposals are aimed at "helping the rich," charged Rep. Tom Downey, D-N.Y., although the president disputed that view. "This is a new version of trickle down."

It all sounded like an updated and brief page from another congressman, William Jennings Bryan, a 19th century populist, whose bronze statue stood nearby gazing over his successors.

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