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The Night the Lights Went Down in Statuary Hall

For a brief few minutes, a major crisis broke out Tuesday evening inside the Capitol's ornate Statuary Hall: The lights went out.

And with it, dozens of television cameras immediately lost their ability to get good shots of the members of Congress pouring into the room to give their reactions to President Bush's State of the Union address.

Under normal circumstances, this wouldn't have been a problem, since Bush was still a few minutes away from wrapping up his more than 5,500-word speech. But many savvy, media-hungry lawmakers know that to wait for the speech to end is to wait for the queues to build up for the cameras.

Besides, they all get a prepared text of the speech anyway, so some members see no reason to wait around for the conclusion.

So, just before the lights went out at 9:58 p.m. ET,, a bipartisan group of members was already milling about Statuary Hall, the room just off the House floor that houses statues of great Americans but on state-of-the-union night doubles as one of the largest press briefing rooms in Washington. Democratic Reps. Lloyd Dogget (Texas), Jerold Nadler (N.Y.) and Loretta Sanchez (Calif.) were pontificating for print and TV reporters -- Sanchez complained to reporters about things she "wishes he would have spoken more about," with Bush still minutes away from actually concluding.

And then the lights went out, just as several Republicans appeared in the room to give their thoughts on the speech: Reps. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), the former chairman of the House Republican campaign team; Chris Shays (Conn.), a narrow winner in November; Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), a onetime aspirant for leadership positions; and Patrick McHenry (N.C.).

Congressional staff immediately figured out what caused the blackout: Power grid overload.

They had initially told the TV crews that there was enough power in the room for the large klieg lights they were using to create a glowing effect for the best images of the lawmakers. But the electricians didn't put enough amps into the room to handle the wiring for laptops, cameras and other high technology that is standard issue for the 21st century media.

This wouldn't be a problem in a non-televison world, since every lawmaker would put out his or her own release officially reacting to the address. (And many had put out their "responses" to Bush's speech before it was given, a tactic that The Post's Washington Sketch columnist Dana Milbank smartly illustrated earlier this month after Bush's address announcing a surge in troops in Iraq. The first "reaction" to President Bush's State of the Union speech to land in the Capitol Briefing's e-mail inbox was from Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey, landing before 6:30 p.m. ET.)

Within five minutes of the lights going out in Statuary Hall, the staff saved the night and re-configured the Capitol power grid. A few minutes past 10 p.m. ET, the lights flashed back on and an eruption of cheers went up from the assembled crew of reporters, lawmakers and aides. And within seconds, the president ended his speech and hundreds of senators and representatives filed out of the House chamber and straight to the cameras.

Crisis averted.

By Paul Kane  |  January 24, 2007; 12:25 AM ET
Categories:  House  
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I am reminded of the song "The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia;" unfortunately there were no innocent men anywhere in the room yesterday.

Posted by: Judge C. Crater | January 24, 2007 2:08 PM | Report abuse

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