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State of the Union Guests

Origins of a Modern Political Tradition

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on January 24, 2012, in Washington, D.C.

Win McNamee/Getty Images Newws

State of the Union guests are often invited to sit with lawmakers and the first lady in the galley of the U.S. House of Representatives while the president delivers the annual address to Congress and the nation.

State of the Union guests are often average citizens: Americans who have served in the military and their families, philanthropists or others who would be impacted by policy initiatives being announced by the president.

President Bill Clinton, for example, invited civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks to be a guest at his 1999 State of the Union address. And President George W. Bush invited Christina Jones, a flight attendant who helped thwart an attempt to detonate a shoe bomb, to his 2002 State of the Union address.

History of State of the Union Guests

The tradition of inviting State of the Union guests began with President Ronald Reagan in 1982. Reagan's State of the Union guest on Jan. 26, 1982, was Lenny Skutnik, a government worker who dove into the icy Potomic River to rescue a woman after after a plane crash, according to The American Presidency Project at the University of California.

"We saw the heroism of one of our young government employees," Reagan said during his State of the Union address. "When he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, (Skutnik) dived into the water and dragged her to safety."

After that, the term Skutnik became associated with the practice of presidents using people as props to embody a particular event or political issue. William Safire, writing in The New York Times in 2001, said "the introduction of heroes became a staple in presidential addresses to joint sessions of Congress."

"In 1995," Safire wrote, "the columnist William F. Buckley was one of the first to use the name as an eponym: 'President Clinton was awash with Skutniks.'"

Guest Roles in State of the Union Address

State of the Union guests often sit with the sitting president's wife, the first lady of the United States. At some point during the speech, the president makes a reference to the guest by name and explain why they are important to history.

State of the Union guests have described the experience as ethereal. "It was almost dreamlike. Am I really up here? What's going on? Is this really happening?" Leonard Abess, a bank official and guest of President Barack Obama's in 2009, told The Washington Post afterward. "I wouldn't trade anything for it."

Prominent State of the Union Guests

Clinton himself was a State of the Union guest of President George H.W. Bush's in 1990. The governor of Arkansas at the time, Clinton had worked with Bush on education policy.

In 1994, when Clinton was president, he invited James Brady, who was Reagan's press secretary and had been shot during a 1981 assassination attempt, to be a State of the Union guest. Clinton also had professional baseball legends Sammy Sosa and Hank Aaron as guests to his speeches.

In 2011, Obama's State of the Union guests included Daniel Hernandez Jr., a congressional intern who helped U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in January of that year.

Obama State of the Union Guests

Many of Obama's State of the Union guests embodied the economic turmoil following The Great Recession and attempts by policymakers to prevent another Great Depression.

Obama's guests included:

  • Family business owners who built up their manufacturing company with the help of federal stimulus money.

  • A man battling brain cancer who benefited from an insurance program that covered him despite an existing condition.

  • A single mother who lost her job but went to a community college after a major company paid her tuition then hired her to run its plant.
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