Diplomatic corps, worldwide watchers await State of the Union

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The diplomatic corps began participating in the Capitol's political life long before that, attending presidential inaugurations since the early days of the Republic and George Washington's funeral in 1799. When the House and Senate chambers were built in the 1850s, special diplomatic galleries were set aside that still bear that name today.

“Congress is the most open branch of government, and it wants people to see what it's doing,” Ritchie said. “It built galleries specifically for this purpose, and right from the very start they felt that the diplomatic corps was an important part of the Washington community.”

Ritchie said diplomats once made good use of the galleries, which aren't reserved for them anymore.

“Diplomats came to watch what was going on in Congress, especially when it was an issue relating to trade or to tariffs or something else,” he said. “Before there was C-SPAN, the only way to know what was going on was either to be there to watch it or to wait until the Congressional Record came out the next day. 

“Of course, their governments were very anxious to know what the Congress was doing, so diplomats attended regularly. And of course it was a good show; in the days before television, a lot of people spent time in the galleries watching [Massachusetts Sen.] Daniel Webster speak or other great moments. So Congress has tried to accommodate the diplomatic corps as best it could.”

Today, he said, people around the world will also be watching from their living rooms now that the event is streamed online.

“Other nations are very interested in both the foreign policy aspects of the speech but even domestic issues,” he said. “Climate change is really an international issue. So they're going to want to see what the priorities are and to judge what the likelihood is that he'll get what he's asking for.”