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State of the Union vignettes

WASHINGTON—It's always something of a spectacle when a president delivers his annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. Some scenes:

Guests in first lady Laura Bush's box represented good deeds, good works and good hands.

Houston Rockets center Dikembe Mutombo sat next to the first lady. Mutombo is enjoying a career renaissance, grabbing rebounds and blocking shots better than NBA players half his age. He's also involved in causes in Africa and helped fund a large portion of a $27 million hospital in Kinshasa, the first new medical facility there in 40 years.

Wesley Autrey sat three seats away. Autrey, a 50-year-old construction worker, jumped onto the New York subway tracks earlier this month to rescue a stranger who'd fallen after suffering a seizure.

Air Force Technical Sgt. Michelle Barefield of Goldsboro, N.C., was one of six military members present. While serving in Iraq from March to September 2006, Barfield survived three improvised explosive device attacks and led 80 Explosive Ordnance Disposal emergency response missions. She was awarded the Bronze Star.

Who would turn down a chance to sit next to the president's wife during a prime-time speech? New Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty. His reason? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., asked him to be her guest first. (He's a Democrat.)

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THE SPIN ZONE

The White House spin machine cranks up hours before President Bush appears before Congress on State of the Union night. A human traffic jam formed at the White House gate Tuesday afternoon as journalists lined up for briefings on the president's address.

The A List: network anchors and Sunday talk show hosts, including Brian Williams of NBC, Bob Schieffer of CBS, Brit Hume of Fox and Tim Russert of NBC. They got to see a "very senior administration official"—also known as President Bush.

The B List: columnists William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and other opinion writers. They sat down with White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten.

The C List: the White House press corps. They spent time with National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, press secretary Tony Snow, domestic adviser Joel Kaplan and White House counselor Dan Bartlett.

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TICKETING INFORMATION

Certain State of the Union rituals endure regardless of party control. One is the distribution of tickets, which lawmakers handle in different ways.

Freshman Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., who toppled House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., gave his extra ticket to his son Michael, an officer in the Air Force Reserves.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., gave his coveted ticket along with traveling expenses to a Merced County high school student, who won the congressman's annual essay contest.

Elizabeth Dietz, a 17-year-old senior at Buhach Colony High School in Atwater, Calif., has been in Washington before, but never for something like the State of the Union.

"It's a lot busier," Dietz said, "and people are hyped up."

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THREE SPEAKERS

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., gave former Democratic Speakers Jim Wright of Texas and Tom Foley of Washington seats of honor in her box, while she was on the dais behind the president.

Wright, 84, who was forced to resign in May 1989 under the weight of an ethics investigation, now writes and teaches at Texas Christian University. Foley, who was defeated for re-election in the Republican tide of 1994, served as U.S. ambassador to Japan and is now a lobbyist.

Even though Wright has floor privileges as a former member, he appreciated the special recognition Pelosi gave him.

"I thought I should accept," said Wright. "Nancy Pelosi is a young woman who I have admired since I swore her in 19 years ago."

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NAMES OF SOLDIERS KILLED IN IRAQ SATURDAY

President Bush spent almost half his State of the Union addressing Iraq and the war on terror and urging Congress to give his new strategy for Iraq time to work before judging his plan to send about 20,000 additional troops there. But it wasn't until his speech was drawing to a close that the Defense Department released the names of nine American soldiers killed Saturday in Iraq.

They were identified as Sgt. Sean P. Fennerty, 25, of Corvallis, Ore., Sgt. Phillip D. McNeill, 22, of Sunrise, Fla., Spc. Jeffrey D. Bisson, 22, of Vista, Calif., and Spc. Toby R. Olsen, 28, of Manchester, N.H., members of the Alaska-based 25th Infantry Division who were killed when a roadside bomb struck their Humvee in Karma, Iraq; 1st Lt. Jacob N. Fritz, 25, of Verdon, Neb., Spc. Johnathan B. Chism, 22, of Gonzales, La., Pfc. Shawn P. Falter, 25, of Cortland, N.Y., and Pvt. Johnathon M. Millican, 20, of Trafford, Ala., also from the 25th, who were ambushed while on patrol in Karbala; and Pfc. Ryan J. Hill, 20, of Keizer, Ore., of the 1st Infantry Division, based in Schweinfurt, Germany, who died after a roadside bomb exploded near his Humvee in Baghdad.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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