The Lenny Skutnik tribute began in 1982, during Ronald Reagan's first State of the Union address. Skutnik had been a bystander when a plane crashed into the Potomac River on January 13, 1982. He dove into the icy waters and saved a woman, and his heroics were captured by TV news cameras. Two weeks later, there he was, seated next to Nancy Reagan at the SOTU, a useful symbol for the Great Manipulator's upbeat message. Skutnik personified "the spirit of American heroism at its finest," Reagan said. "Don't let anyone tell you that America's best days are behind her, that the American spirit has been vanquished." Skutnik looked uncomfortable during his standing O, but a tradition was born.
George H. W. Bush wasn't a practitioner of the custom, but Bill Clinton and George W. Bush leaned heavily on their Lenny Skutniks, as has President Obama. Tonight's Skutnik apparently will be former staff sergeant Clint Romesha, who yesterday received the Medal of Honor from the president for his valor in Afghanistan. He'll be sitting next to or near Michelle Obama.
''This schtick has outlived its time," James Fallows, the Atlantic's national correspondent, complained last year. "It's corny, and I dream of an America in which a President gets through a SOTU without this faux-realism touch."
But don't let anyone tell you that America's best Skutnik days are behind her. The State of the Union address, like most presidential speeches, usually is awash with soap, and winning applause is the preeminent goal. Presidents hope to bask in their chosen hero's reflected gallantry. They show their generosity in awarding a Skutnik a figurative embrace. And for the all-important SOTU applause stats, the Skutnik moment is a freebie—it's a cheap base hit, but it looks like a line drive in the box score.
In 1999, Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa joined the Skutnik family, thanks to President Clinton. Sosa had helped relief efforts in his native Dominican Republic in the fall of 1998 after it was ravaged by a hurricane—but his Skutnik honor probably had more to do with the 66 baseballs he'd knocked over fences that summer. In the gallery of the House chamber, his muscular frame was squeezed between Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore.
"Hillary helped to rededicate a hospital that had been rebuilt by Dominicans and Americans working side by side," President Clinton informed Congress. "With her was someone else who has been very important to the relief efforts. You know sports records are made and, sooner or later, they're broken. But making other people's lives better and showing our children the true meaning of brotherhood, that lasts forever. So for far more than baseball, Sammy Sosa, you're a hero in two countries tonight."
The next time Sosa was before Congress, it was to tell a House committee he'd "never taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs" and "would never put anything dangerous like that" in his body. This was in 2005, four years before evidence surfaced that he'd tested positive for such a drug in 2003.
That test may keep Sosa out of baseball's Hall of Fame, but he'll be a Skutnik forever. And in their SOTU addresses, expect presidents to keep relying on their performance-enhancing hugs.