The powder-keg partisanship that drove Capitol Hill into the longest government shutdown in U.S. history is not likely to cool by Tuesday’s State of the Union address. As President Trump settles into the House chamber, he’ll be looking out at a Congress that remains divided in both parties over his border wall, and addressing a nation where his approval rating has dropped to the mid-30s.
But also attending the national address will be a number of figures whose attendance alone stands as a rebuke to the president’s agenda. The lineup of 2019 attendees include the likes of transgender soldiers threatened by the administration’s controversial military ban and undocumented workers who once punched the clock at Trump’s own properties.
For decades now, members of Congress have used their State of the Union guest list as a way to emphasize political points. But the irony is that this particular American political tradition springs from a completely partisan-free moment.
Enter Lenny Skutnik.
It was 1982 and the 28-year-old was a low-level clerk at the Congressional Budget Office. On Jan 13., 1982, an Air Florida jetliner lifting off from Washington National Airport slammed into the 14th Street bridge, killing 78 passengers and crew members, The Washington Post reported.
Skutnik watched the crash unfold, and then plunged into the icy Potomac River, hauling one woman to safety. Weeks later, his phone rang with a message from President Ronald Reagan’s White House, asking Skutnik to attend the State of the Union.
During the speech, Reagan broke from his political rhetoric to honor Skutnik’s bravery during the crash.
“Uh oh,” Skutnik thought, he recounted to Time magazine in 1982, “here it comes.”
Suddenly, everyone in the chamber was on their feet, clapping for the government bureaucrat.
“My mind went blank, I didn’t move a muscle,” Skutnik told Time. “I was stunned. Not many people get standing ovations, and for somebody like me.”
According to a 2018 Time article, Reagan’s acknowledgment of the everyman-turned-hero was considered a rhetorical masterstroke. Each year going forward, speechwriters began incorporating “Skutniks” regularly into State of the Union addresses.
A tradition was born.
In his 1984 address, Reagan invited a U.S. service member who saw combat in Grenada. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush used the address to acknowledge the wives of Gens. Colin Powell and H. Norman Schwarzkopf, then leading military commanders in Iraq, The Post reported.
In 1994 President Bill Clinton gave a shout-out to James S. Brady, the former Reagan press secretary who pushed for his eponymous gun control legislation. Two years later, Clinton invited a Social Security Administration employee who had saved victims at the Oklahoma City bombing. President Barack Obama used his State of the Union guest list in 2010 to highlight Americans suffering from the economic downturn and the health care system.
Members of Congress are allowed to bring a single guest to the State of the Union — although congressional leadership has more invites to hand out. Going into Tuesday, Democrats began broadcasting their guest selections.
As The Post reported, a number of Democrats, including freshman Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) and presidential hopeful Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), have tapped federal workers or family members hit hard by the government shutdown to attend the State of the Union.
But others have opted for choices that tie directly back into the most heated controversies of Trump’s first two years in office.
On Monday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) announced via Twitter she was inviting Ana Maria Archila to the speech. A sexual assault activist, Archila went viral when she confronted then-Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) in an elevator last year over the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.
According to Washington Blade, four Democrats — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), and Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) — have all invited transgender veterans and service members to Trump’s address, a direct protest of the administration’s ban on transgender individuals in the military.
“Last April, I asked Sec Mattis whether he would thought courageous trans servicemembers like AF Staff Sgt Ireland are a “burden” on our military,” Speier posted to Twitter on Friday. “This year I’m proud to have Staff Sgt Ireland as my guest of honor at the
Two Democrats — Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) and Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) — are planning to attend with undocumented former employees of Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, N.J., The Post reported.
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