What's a Skutnik and Why Is One Sitting Next to Michelle Obama at the State of the Union?

Update: It has been reported that former Army staff sergeant Clint Romesha has declined the invitation to attend the State of the Union. A list of attendees sitting near the First Lady can be found here.

Here are some things we know about Tuesday's State of the Union: Democrats will stand and cheer while Republicans will sit and tweet disgruntledly. Jobs and the economy will be mentioned. And, at one point, President Obama will look up at the first lady's box, glance to the left or the right of his wife, and then sing praises of Staff Sgt. Clint Romesha, a Medal of Honor recipient.

That's because Romesha is a Skutnik.

Not to be confused with some sort of Soviet plan for world domination, "Lenny Skutniks" are the people who get invited to the State of the Union to sit next to the first lady and are mentioned in the speech. To the cynical, Skutniks are stagecraft. To presidents, they're the State of the Union Incarnate.

People honored with the mention range from Sammy Sosa (and we know how that turned out) to Rosa Parks and Mark Kelly. Whether he's cited as an example of heroism in the line of duty, or as a representative of the brave unbreakable spirit of the American stock, Staff Sgt. Romesha will serve as a breathing reminder that there is something fundamentally good in the every day of American life.

But the first was Lenny Skutnik who, despite the political associations that have become attached to his name, was an actual hero one January day in 1982.


It was an ugly day.

Snow was still falling on Jan. 13, 1982, when Air Florida Flight 90 took off en route to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., from Washington National Airport.

Two bad decisions were made fatal by a third. 1: When the plane was stuck at the gate and couldn't be towed out to the runway, the captain performed an improper backwards thrust maneuver to move away from the gate. This lodged snow and ice into the engines.

2: The plane had been deiced at 3 p.m., but it didn't take off until 4 p.m. Meanwhile, snow fell and accumulated on the wings. Instead of going through a second deicing, the pilot decided to use the exhaust of the airplane in front of Flight 90 to melt the snow on the wings. This only pushed the ice to the trailing edge of the wings, where it froze again.

These two decisions might not have been so fatal if it were not for another critical oversight. 3: When the plane took off at 3:59 p.m., the aircraft's anti-ice systems were turned off.

The first officer was concerned. But the captain blew him off.

    15:59:58 [First officer] God, look at that thing. That don't seem right, does it? Uh, that's not right.

    16:00:09 [Captain] Yes it is, there's 80.

    16:00:10 [First Officer] Naw, I don't think that's right. Ah, maybe it is.

On takeoff, the plane accelerated too slowly. Barely a mile outside of the runway, it stalled. "Larry, we're going down, Larry, " First Officer Roger Pettit said to the captain.

The captain responded with his last words: "I know it."

The 737 then crashed into the 14th Street Bridge in D.C., killing five commuters as it sliced through the guardrails. Parts of the plane broke apart as it nosedived into the near-frozen Potomac. Of the 70 people onboard, only five survived. One of those lucky few was Priscilla Tirado. Rescue helicopters arrived on scene, and sent a rescue line down to her. In the freezing water, she lost her grip. Lenny Skutnik was watching on the shore and jumped in to save her. He towed her to land. It was 24 degrees outside.

Here's what he saw (skip to 1:38).

Although Skutnik got the bulk of the media attention, he wasn't the only hero of the day. Arland D. Williams , a 50-year-old passenger, passed a rescue tube to two others when he could have been hoisted to safety first. By the third time the helicopter rescuers sent down a line, he had drowned.

President Reagan took notice of the incident, just in time for his State of the Union in 1982.

Segueing from a section on unemployment and the recession, Reagan began to praise the can-do attitude of the American people. That's when he said this:

    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. 

A standing ovation followed, and Reagan looked at him with a wistful gaze. Skutnik, stoic as ever, peered down from behind his '80s-era mustache.

From then on the tradition stuck, more or less. It also, according to a 1996 New York Times story, set off a new era of presidential optics. Since Reagan, "the simpler photo ops of politicking have never been quite the same," Francis X. Clines wrote.  "As candidates seek out close proximity, yea virtual bonding, with irresistible Americans, from homespun to heroic, whose virtues are there to be savored undeniably on the television screen." Think "Joe the Plumber."

Now, political props have spread from the big events to more common events such as bill signings. As National Journal's Sophie Quniton reported in July, President Obama rarely gives a speech without a human backdrop. The trend has caught on down ticket, too. Governors regularly "Skutnik" during state-of-the-state speeches.

Skutnik, when asked about the incident over and over, over the last three decades has always maintained that he didn't feel like his was doing anything out of the ordinary. "I wasn't a hero," he told The Washington Post in 2007. "I was just someone who helped another human being. We're surrounded by heroes. What made this different was that it was caught on film and went all over the world." Reminiscing with The New York Times in 2002, he said he felt his story became too much of a commodity, and he expressed some bitterness about the attention. ''A hero seems something to be bought and sold,'' Skutnik said.

Lenny Skutnik's actions that day made him more than a man; he is now a political cliche.