President Obama is hoping that absence will speak louder than words on Tuesday.
For his last State of the Union address, he’ll leave one seat empty in Michelle Obama’s guest box “for the victims of gun violence who no longer have a voice,” according to the White House.
It will be at least the second time a State of the Union seat has been left purposefully empty. One empty seat in Laura Bush’s box in 2003 symbolized “the empty place many Americans will always have at their tables and in their lives because of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.”
Two people whose lives intersected with Obama during his first presidential campaign — Greenwood County, S.C., Council Member Edith S. Childs, and Earl Smith, a security officer at the Hyatt Regency in Austin, Texas — will be sitting in the first lady’s box Tuesday night.
Childs made her mark in June 2007, when she motivated a group of just 38 supporters in Greenwood with the call-and-response routine, “Fired up! Ready to go!” The chant became a fixture in Obama’s 2008 bid.
Smith first met the then-senator from Illinois in February 2008 at the Austin hotel, where he was operating an elevator. Smith gave Obama a military patch that he had worn while serving with an artillery brigade in Vietnam. The unit had sustained 10,041 casualties and received 13 Medals of Honor.
Smith had kept the patch with him for 40 years. Obama carried it in his pocket for the rest of the campaign; he now keeps it in a box in his Chicago home and plans to donate it to his presidential library.
Guests of the first lady’s box at the State of the Union have been highly symbolic since President Ronald Reagan’s wife, Nancy, invited federal employee Lenny Skutnik to join her in 1982.
Skutnik had gained national prominence less than two weeks earlier after he swam in the frigid Potomac River to save an Air Florida passenger who was struggling to hold onto a lifeline after the flight crashed into the water.