The sun is just rising as West Point cadet Jean Nguyen races out of the ABC offices on DeSales Street and into the waiting CBS car, one newspaper reporter and two Army escorts trailing her. It is 6:35 a.m. Thursday, the early morning after the late night before, the night President Reagan cited Nguyen in his State of the Union address as "an American hero," and the newly minted celebrity is fulfilling the first responsibility of all American heroes -- she is doing the morning news shows.
The other hero of the day, Clara Hale, founder of a home in New York City for infants of drug-addicted mothers, has just arrived at ABC for her turn in front of the cameras.
"You know I have to make a 7:30 plane?" Nguyen asks the CBS woman carrying her gray coat and hat.
Nguyen cannot afford to miss her plane. At "13:10," the woman whose family escaped from Vietnam as Saigon fell and who is the first West Point female cadet of Vietnamese descent must be in a seat back at the Academy, taking an exam in criminal law.
"They kept it so confidential I couldn't even tell my professor," she says as the shadowed Washington streets slide by the car windows. "I couldn't say anything even to my roommate. I left a note for her Tuesday afternoon. I told her I'd tell her when I got back."
It is 6:49. Out of the car, into CBS, through the makeup room. The interview starts. On the monitor a 21-year-old face appears, newly rouged, the smile somewhat shaky by now, repeating the answers one more time, telling of her family's flight, her desire to "serve, to do something for the nation." By 7:02 she is back in the car, on the way to National and her exam.
A few miles away, Hale is doing the "Today" show.
Nguyen and Hale were both told not to talk about the invitations they received Friday to attend the State of the Union, but if their identities were kept well hidden, their presence was not a surprise.
This was the third time President Reagan has included people like Hale and Nguyen in his State of the Union address. In 1982 he mentioned Lenny Skutnik, who rescued a woman from the Potomac after the crash of an Air Florida jet, and Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.), a former prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Last year he spoke of several, including Sgt. Stephen Trujillo, an Army medic who took part in the invasion of Grenada, and Barbara Proctor, a Chicago businesswoman.
"I think that in Ronald Reagan's vision of America, there really are American heroes," Lee Atwater, former White House deputy assistant for political affairs, said yesterday. "I think it is a nonpolitical gesture on the president's part."
"My feeling about it is, I was proud of these people," said David Johnson, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "That clearly was the president's intent, and I felt it . . . Of course he was using them to demonstrate a point, and the point was the one he wanted to make and he's the president and a member of the opposite party and all that. I also felt all that, but the fact of the matter is the reaction I had was the one he wanted. I was proud of them."
It is a device Reagan uses often and well, said Kathleen Jamieson, a professor of communications at the University of Maryland who is writing a book on the nature of eloquence. "The rhetorical figure is called 'enactment,' " she said. "What he's done throughout his entire presidency is use single individuals to make a point. It's a very positive rhetorical figure because it short-circuits the need for other evidence.
"What he's done is get the Democrats in Congress to stand in applause. If you start to applaud -- and that's only natural -- you are in essence applauding Reagan's philosophy. That's what's so skillful."
Hale and Nguyen were perfect choices as the objects of applause, Jamieson said. "The people he cites tend to be persons who are not generally considered to be part of his natural constituency. When he smiles up and Hale smiles and says 'Thank you' to Reagan, it short-circuits all you ever heard that says Reagan has not helped blacks."
And Nguyen, she said, "is in fact a demonstration that the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia had value, that there were other women like that there we could have saved."
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said yesterday that the White House receives letters describing outstanding Americans, and the staff also maintains a collection of clippings about such people. But Wednesday's cast of two seems to have had a different origin.
"The president said he'd read about her," Clara Hale's daughter Lorraine Hale said after she and her mother met with Reagan Thursday morning. Was it in a recent Parade magazine article? "He was too much of a diplomat to say where."
Nguyen, who met with Reagan on Wednesday, said Reagan told her he first saw her when she appeared on the Jan. 24 segment of CBS' "An American Portrait," a series of 60-second profiles that air Monday through Friday at 8:58 p.m. Nguyen also appeared on the now-defunct CBS series "American Parade," so when she did the "CBS Morning News," the network already had footage of her walking across the West Point campus.
"I'm on the racquetball team," she said, listing her extracurricular activities in one breath like someone reciting a very long name. "I'm in the French club, the Spanish club, the Dialectic Society, Theater Arts, Corporate Seminar and Public Affairs."
On Public Affairs duty, she escorts visiting members of the media around the academy and is available to speak about West Point.
"She has been very good in working with the media," said Maj. David Compton, public information officer at West Point. "She does much better when she's off camera. If you broach a question directly to her -- she doesn't want to talk about herself. She's shy . . . That's not the word. I can't think of a cadet here who's shy in the sense of how we usually use the word shy."
The White House did not pay for either Hale or Nguyen to come to Washington. Nguyen was on "temporary duty status," so her tab was picked up by the Army. Hale and her daughter paid for everything -- from the flight down from New York City to the stay at the Madison Hotel -- themselves.
"I don't think we see that as inappropriate," said Lorraine Hale. "I think if you listened to his speech last night, he said the people were free and we should get government out. I think he was talking about people going out on their own and helping without asking for government support . . . We thought, 'Hey, we'll go with it.' "
Hale House is one of 62 volunteer child care agencies in New York City that are contracted by the city and state and receive a per-diem allowance for children who stay there. On Thursday afternoon its founder was sitting on the edge of her bed at the Madison, about to return to "my babies."
The president's salute, Clara Hale hopes, will bring attention to the plight of the children she helps. "I think people need to know. At least they can hear him and know.
"I don't feel any different," she said as her daughter zipped up the suitcases. "I don't think I'm a hero. This is my lifework and I like it."
And she was eager to get back to it, after a rather unusual 24 hours.
"They told us about the seating, that we were next to Mrs. Reagan. I had the shakes like this," she said, sticking out a hand and making it tremble violently. "I was holding the little girl's hand. She was saying, 'Don't worry. I'm nervous too.' "