Three decades of ‘Skutniks’ began with a federal employee

January 25, 2012

President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night marked the 30th anniversary of the first time a president turned to the rafters of the House gallery and made reference to an everyday American.

The first American to earn the distinction was a federal employee, Lenny Skutnik, a Congressional Budget Office employee who jumped into the icy waters of the Potomac River in January 1982 to help rescue survivors of the Air Florida Flight 90 crash.

Ever since Ronald Reagan invited Skutnik to watch his speech two weeks after the crash, presidents have brought along a long list of so-called “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, Reagan 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 and the gesture became a well-worn bit of presidential stagecraft.

This year, Mark Kelly, the husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), and a former NASA astronaut, and Air Force Col. Ginger Wallace, from McLean, were among the White House guests.

Reagan’s other 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 once 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 antiterrorism 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. Several Iraqi human rights activists and the parents, spouses and siblings of slain U.S. service members also attended Bush’s speeches.

Tuesday night also marked the public debut of a new high-profile Capitol Hill staffer.

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.

As is tradition, Irving shouted out the familiar call to attention, “Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States.”

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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