State of the Union: 30 years of ‘Skutniks’


View Photo Gallery: A look at some of the guests honored at the annual State of the Union address since President Ronald Reagan introduced the practice in 1982.

Tonight’s State of the Union address will mark the 30th anniversary of the first time a president turned to the rafters of the House gallery and made reference to an everyday American.

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Ever since 1982, when Ronald Reagan looked up at Lenny Skutnik — a Congressional Budget Office employee who had jumped into the icy waters of the Potomac River to help rescue survivors of the Air Florida Flight 90 crash — presidents have invited a long list of “Skutniks,” or invited guests, to sit with the first lady and help humanize the policies, priorities and personal feelings conveyed by the president.

Moved by Skutnik’s heroism, Ronald Reagan invited him to sit with Nancy Reagan, and during the speech he noted how the crash response had once again demonstrated “the spirit of American heroism at its finest.”

Then Reagan added: “We saw the heroism of one of our young government employees, Lenny Skutnik, who, when he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety.”

With that, the House gallery burst into a standing ovation, Reagan saluted Skutnik (who stood with a stone-faced expression), and the gesture became a well-worn bit of presidential stagecraft.

This year, Mark Kelly, the husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), and Debbie Bosanek, the personal secretary of Warren Buffett, are slated to be among the White House guests. If history is any guide, Obama might also tap foreign leaders, superstar athletes, teachers, veterans, the parents of slain soldiers, community activists or another everyday hero for the plum seating assignment.

Reagan’s guests included Mother Clara Hale, a Harlem-based activist caring for abandoned children, and Jean Nguyen, a Vietnamese woman who was set to graduate from West Point.

In 1991, George H.W. Bush invited Alma Powell and Brenda Schwarzkopf, the wives of Gens. Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, who were leading military operations in Iraq. Bill Clinton called out former Reagan press secretary James Brady to help push for gun control laws, and in 1996 invited Richard Dean, a Social Security Administration employee, who helped rescue victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. In other years, home run kings Sammy Sosa and Hank Aaron also attended the big speech.

Several of George W. Bush’s invited guests had ties to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and anti-terrorism operations. In 2002, flight attendants Christina Jones and Hermis Moutardier attended the speech after helping to thwart an attempted bombing by Richard Reid, the so-called “Shoe Bomber.” Shannon Spann, the widow of CIA officer Michael Spann killed in Afghanistan, also attended that year. Adnan Pachachi, president of the Iraqi Governing Council, and Safia Taleb al-Suhail, an Iraqi human rights activists, attended the State of the Union in 2005. Several parents, spouses and siblings of slain service members also attended Bush’s speeches.

More recently, Obama has invited Americans affected by the economic downturn.

And in addition to keeping tabs on the invited guests, there’s one more bit of political theater to watch and listen for tonight: A new voice is set to shout out the familiar call to attention, “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States.”

Paul D. Irving, a former Secret Service agent, was elected last week as the 37th House Sergeant-at-Arms. Irving, who serves as the lead law enforcement and protocol officer for the House, succeeds Wilson Livingood, who retired after 17 years, the second-longest tenure for the position.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Further reading:

Obama’s State of the Union is crucial balancing act

Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address: an accounting

Interactive: Breaking down the State of the Union

For more, visit PostPolitics and The Fed Page.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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