On a bitterly cold and snowy day in January of 1982, Air Florida flight 90 took off from Washington D.C. heading to Tampa, Florida.
Upon takeoff the plane’s wings iced over, causing it to skip off Washington’s 14th Street bridge and crash into the icy waters of the Potomac River. The ensuing rescue effort was broadcast over local television.
Frigid temperatures and bad weather hampered the first responders. With time running out to save the crash victims, a bystander named Lenny Skutnik suddenly jumped in and saved flight attendant Priscilla Trijado, who had twice fallen back into the water after slipping away from rescue lines.
A speechwriter for Ronald Reagan named Aram Bakshian was watching the coverage. He immediately thought Skutnik’s story would resonate with the American people and decided to include it in his draft of Reagan’s upcoming State of the Union address.
A few weeks later, Skutnik was sitting in the gallery of the U.S. House chamber watching as President Reagan told his story.
Reagan recounted the rescue. He said Skutnik embodied “American heroism at its finest.”
Reagan then looked up at Skutnik, who was seated in the gallery next to First Lady Nancy Reagan. The chamber burst into extended applause.
This was the first of what has become a predictable part of presidential State of the Union addresses – underlining a moment in the speech to point out a guest in the gallery who personifies the policy or point the president is emphasizing.
The tradition has become known as the "Skutnik,” and the guests themselves are referred to as “Lenny Skutniks."
Presidents have historically selected uncontroversial figures who embody a positive message, or at least who represent a political agenda framed in virtuousness for the greater good.
When George W. Bush talked about kindness and self-sacrifice in his 2007 address, he praised professional basketball player Dikembe Mutombo – a new U.S.citizen – for building a hospital in his hometown in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In his 2011 address, President Barack Obama pointed out guest Brandon Fisher in the context of discussing American hard work, ingenuity and selflessness. Obama told how Fisher’s Pennsylvania company specialized in new drilling technologies that helped rescue the trapped Chilean miners the year before.
People like Skutnik, Mutombo and Fisher represented values that presidents believed were important. They provided role models for others to follow.
Presidents also use the State of the Union as an opportunity to set out ambitious political priorities. By pointing out heroes, presidents can put a face and a story to the policies they want to highlight.
For example, in his 1999 address, President Bill Clinton, while talking about his initiatives to combat racism and inequality, introduced civil rights icon Rosa Parks who was seated in the gallery next to First Lady Hillary Clinton.
In 2002, President George W. Bush gave his first State of the Union address after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He singled out Hermis Moutardier and Christina Jones – two of the flight attendants who thwarted “shoe bomber” Richard Reid on American Airlines Flight 63 bound from Paris to Miami in 2001. He also pointed to Sharon Spann, widow of CIA officer Michael Spann, who was killed in Afghanistan.
As presidential scholars Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson write in their book, Presidents Creating the Presidency, State of the Union addresses are about celebrating shared values, aspirations and national identity.
That’s especially true when it comes to “The Skutnik” tradition.
Anthony F. Arrigo is an associate professor of writing rhetoric and communication at the University of Massachusetts-Darmouth. His column was distributed by The Conversation, a nonprofit commentary service.