WASHINGTON -- President Obama may have delivered the big speech on Tuesday night. But all attention early in the night was focused on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who survived an assassination attempt more than a year ago.
Giffords entered the House chamber to a standing ovation that was unmatched the entire evening. She was accompanied by Rep. Raul Grijalva, a liberal Democrat, on her left, and Rep. Jeff Flake, a conservative Republican, on her right. As she approached her seat, the crowd continued to roar.
Before Giffords sat down, Rep. Louie Gohmert, a tea party Republican from Texas, approached with a bag of chocolates. Before the shooting last January, Giffords and Gohmert often shared the same flight to Washington DC from Dallas, where Giffords would make a connection. Each time they met on the plane, Gohmert had candy ready to share.
"I missed giving you chocolate on our flight together," Gohmert told Giffords on the House floor over thunderous, bipartisan applause. "So I brought you some tonight."
When Obama and Vice President Joe Biden passed her on their way to the podium, each stopped to give her a long and warm hug.
Throughout Obama's speech, in which the president touted his foreign policy record, called for higher taxes on the wealthy and outlined his plan for improving job growth, Giffords followed along closely. When she wanted to rise to show her support for the president, Grijalva and Flake helped her stand. Many times, Flake was the only Republican standing in the entire room. The symbolism of one member of a party standing alone to help a colleague of the opposing party wasn't lost on anyone.
"She knew when she wanted to stand up," Flake told Yahoo News, tears forming in his eyes, after the speech. "And I stood when she stood."
Earlier this week, Giffords announced that she would resign her congressional seat instead of pursuing re-election in her district. Tuesday marked the last time that some in the House chamber would see Giffords—at least for the immediate future, if not forever. For many who knew her well, it will be tough to say goodbye.
"Tonight it was so obvious to everyone what was really at the core of this lady's heart. She is fun-loving and kind and decent and gentle, and she's also an example of how that inner-courage and willingness to persevere can transcend in even the worst circumstances," said Rep. Trent Franks, a Republican from Arizona. He added that seeing her "was certainly the highlight of the night."
"Gabby and I were as far apart politically as people can be," Franks went on to say. "But there was never an unkind word that passed between us."
Grijalva, co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, echoed the sentiment.
"In this business, you know, decency is an important quality, and she has a great deal of it and that's going to be missed," he said. "The House of Representatives is a bizarre and sometimes dysfunctional family, but we are a family. When one of ours needs help, has gone through what Gabby went through, I think we all gather around to help that family member. As weird as we are a family, we're still a family."
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