washingtonpost.com  > World > Middle East > The Gulf > Iraq > Post

The Moment That America Embraced

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2005; Page C01

Every now and again, a set of scripted and chance events comes together to form an indelible moment that sums up so much in so little.

During the State of the Union address Wednesday night, it was The Hug.

Janet Norwood , center, a guest of first lady Laura Bush, right, untangles the dog tags of her son Sgt. Byron Norwood from Safia al-Souhail's clothes. (Rich Lipski -- The W Ashington Post)

It was one of the most emotional moments in the history of the usually staid addresses; it wasn't planned, and it took place between Janet Norwood, the mother of a U.S. Marine slain in Iraq, and Safia al-Souhail, whose father was assassinated by the Saddam Hussein regime more than a decade ago.

"I just turned around and did it," al-Souhail said yesterday between the barrage of media talk shows and Capitol Hill meetings that followed the televised embrace. "It was from the bottom of my heart. I wanted to turn and kiss her and tell her how happy I am to have the opportunity to tell her how grateful I am, and people in Iraq are, for all of this. And, of course, I know the hurt she is going through."

Such televised images during the State of the Union address don't happen by chance. Presidents and their handlers put people in those seats, cue the television cameras, and the latter turn on the former at the key moment.

It's politics, it's staged and it can be powerful.

Nobody did this better than Ronald Reagan, who pioneered the process. In the 1982 State of the Union address, Reagan had Lenny Skutnik seated in the gallery. Skutnik, an office worker, became a national hero after his death-defying leap into the icy Potomac River to save victims of the Air Florida crash.

Skutnik's courage and humanity was the type of selfless act that gives dignity to human beings, and when Reagan recognized him during the speech as an example of the American ideal, the room erupted in thunderous applause.

Every president since has used the device -- planting people in the audience to illustrate a key point in the speech -- to the extent that speechwriters now use the term "Lenny Skutniks" as slang for any such person used to make a predetermined point.

For this speech, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad reached out to al-Souhail, who wasn't that hard to find, particularly since she used to live in Arlington and gave birth to her only child in Fairfax Hospital.

The 39-year-old activist is well known among exiled Iraqis who opposed Hussein. Her father, Sheikh Taleb al-Souhail, and the rest of the family were forced from the country when she was 3. The family lived mostly in Lebanon or in Jordan, the latter as guests of King Hussein, and she lived in Virginia for about a year in 2001. About 18 months ago, after U.S.-led forces forced Hussein from power, she and her family returned to Baghdad to live.

Last week, during Iraq's election, she was contacted by the embassy and asked if she would like to be Laura Bush's guest at the State of the Union address.

"I was extremely happy and surprised," she said yesterday.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Janet and Bill Norwood were mourning the loss of their 25-year-old son, Byron. The Norwoods live in Pflugerville, Tex., a few miles outside of Austin. Byron, who had played trumpet and been a star in high school theater productions, had gone on to become a Marine sergeant.

CONTINUED    1 2    Next >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company