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State of the Union: What you didn't see on TV

The annual State of the Union speech, with its ritual standing ovations and cheering by politicians from both parties, is one of the great set-pieces of American politics. But the camera only catches so much--relatively little, actually, of what goes on in the chamber.

For the most part, the lens is zeroing in on the president, with side shots of the VP and the House speaker, and at certain moments, members of the audience, made up of hundreds of senators and congressmen, cabinet members, Supreme Court justices and other notables.

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Seldom, though, do voters get to see their member of Congress in action (or inaction). So here is a selective guide to what you didn't see if you happened to watch President Barack Obama on television.

First the good news. If any Marylanders dozed off, they did it surreptiously.

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Yes, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski snuck a peek at her smart phone, before the speech began, something that would be against the rules in the Senate, where electronic communications devices are banned. But the House, where the event is held, does permit the use of "unobtrusive handheld electronic devices" such as a BlackBerry.

You probably missed seeing Mikulski, a staunch Obama supporter, on one of the rare occasions when she didn't join other Democrats in jumping to her feet at an applause line.

That was when she sat stonily, with arms folded, as the president called on the House and Senate to put limits on one of their most treasured perquisites: the power to spend money on congressionally directed projects (more popularly known as earmarks).

Or freshman Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil of the Eastern Shore, as he stood and clapped when Obama extolled the virtues of the Democratic stimulus program--which Kratovil voted for (after he initially voted against it).

Kratovil laughed heartily when Obama said that "it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics." Kratovil, the most endangered Marylander in Congress this year, knows the politics of health care intimately: he voted against the sweeping Democratic measure, even though he supported its objectives.

Another peculiarity of State of the Union night: a handful of congressmen arrive hours early, hoping to stake out a seat on the aisle, so that they can shake hands with every dignitary that enters the chamber, from the President on down, and be seen on TV.

Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore snagged one of those prize seats Wednesday, two rows from the rear of the House chamber. He also joined a small group of Democrats that chanted "We're number one!" after Obama said that he would "not accept second place for the United States of America."

Rep. Donna Edwards of Prince George's County was among the more enthusiastic members of the audience, repeatedly rising to applaud the president's words. A notable exception: when he called for building a new generation of nuclear power plants. (Kratovil, Cummings and House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland were among those who thought that idea was worthy of a standing ovation, but Edwards is a longtime skeptic of nuclear power.)

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Frederick, the state's only Republican in Congress, generally sat or stood along with his Republican colleagues. A leading promoter of the theory of "peak oil," which holds that a majority of the Earth's petroleum has already been found, Bartlett joined in the applause when Obama called for America to become the world's leading clean-energy economy, though he got up from his seat rather belatedly to join the bipartisan ovation.

Obama made a point of noting that the Senate had blocked action this week on a measure that would have created a budget commission to tackle the problem of skyrocketing costs for mandatory benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin was among those who voted to block the measure, and he didn't join most of his Democratic colleagues in applauding when the president promoted the idea.

Cardin said later that he favors Obama's solution--an executive-created budget panel--since it would not surrender Congress's taxing and spending power to others, as opponents like Cardin argue that the original commission would have done.

Rep. C. A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger didn't leap to his feet like most in the hall. That's because he was already standing for the bulk of the president's lengthy, hour-plus speech. The Baltimore County Democrat said he had been working out at the House gym, and by the time he arrived in the chamber, at about 8:45 p.m., every seat was already taken.

And apologies to Rep. John Sarbanes of Baltimore. If he was present, he wasn't visible from the press gallery.

UPDATE: Sarbanes' staff says that he was there. He was seated directly below the press gallery, which made it difficult to see him.

The most memorable audience spectacle of the evening came when Obama chose to take a whack at the justices of the Supreme Court, most of whom were sitting directly in front of him. By custom, they don't join in the applause game (they are, after all, the branch of government that is often called upon to adjudicate disputes involving the president or Congress).

Then, too, presidents don't usually unleash an in-your-face attacks on a major Court decision, as Obama did last night. He said that last week the justices had reversed "a century of law, to open the floodgates for special interests" when they ruled that corporations could spend "without limit" in political campaigns.

In response, Justice Samuel Alito, a Republican nominee who joined the 5-4 majority in the case, scowled, shook his head and stared daggers back at the president.

Some believe Alito also muttered the words "not true" when Obama claimed the ruling would allow foreign corporations to put money into American campaigns. Judge for yourself. It was one for the history books, a YouTube moment that, unlike many others last night, did manage to get captured onscreen.

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