‘State of the Union’: Political Theater, with Special Guests Galore

Lenny Skutnik, who jumped into the Potomac River to save one of the passengers aboard an Air Florida jetliner that had crashed there on January 13, 1982, receives applause during Ronald Reagan's State of the Union address on Jan. 27, 1982.

The modern State of the Union address isn’t intended to make news. By the time it happens, the White House has leaked every newsworthy proposal.

And it’s certainly not intended to impart the actual “state of the union.” Almost two thirds of Americans tell pollsters our country is on the wrong path, but we can expect to hear Barack Obama intone that the “state of our union is strong.”

Instead of being a meaningful policy address, the speech has devolved into political theater — an opportunity for the president to look, well, presidential. And as if a prime time speech, covered by all the major networks, with the entire Congress as his backdrop wasn’t enough, there’s another theatrical aspect: The guests in the first lady’s box.

“Those sitting with the  First Lady this year include a teenager from the South Side of Chicago, an astronaut going on a year-long mission to the International Space Station this spring, and a woman who was able to have her brain tumor removed thanks to the Affordable Care Act,” the White House reports. Expect presidential “shout-outs” to each of these distinguished citizens.

Like the State of the Union speech itself, it probably seems as if these guests have always been there, and always will be. But the trend of having American heroes on hand actually dates back only about three decades, to 1982.

About two weeks before President Reagan’s address that year, an Air Florida jet crashed just after takeoff from DC’s National Airport, hitting a bridge and breaking apart in the Potomac River.

A federal employee named Lenny Skutnik was on his way home from work when the plane went down. He jumped into the freezing water and hauled Priscilla Tirado to shore. That act of selfless heroism earned him a seat next to Mrs. Reagan, and a few lines in her husband’s address. President Reagan said:

Just two weeks ago, in the midst of a terrible tragedy on the Potomac, we saw again the spirit of American heroism at its finest, the heroism of dedicated rescue workers saving crash victims from icy waters. And 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.

From a river rescuer to a beneficiary of ObamaCare, in just a third of a century. Look how far we’ve come.