On the night of January 26, 1982, with criticism mounting and the air full of talk about his plans to address a deepening recession, President Ronald Reagan rose in the U.S. House of Representatives for his first annual State of the Union Address.
"As usual," Washington Post political reporter and Reagan biographer Lou Cannon wrote that night, "Reagan's optimism was boundless."
The president offered reasons for optimism -- and personified them in Lenny Skutnik, a 28-year old federal employee who had risked his life twelve days earlier when he dove into an ice-choked Potomac River and rescued a struggling passenger of the Air Florida jet that had crashed on takeoff from Washington's National Airport.
"Don't let anyone tell you that America's best days are behind her, that the American spirit has been vanquished," Reagan said in saluting Skutnik, who sat as his guest in the House gallery balcony next to Nancy Reagan. "We've seen it triumph too often in our lives to stop believing in it now." There was thunderous applause, of course.
The moment was vintage Reagan the "great communicator" pitching a message in vivid, human terms that made people listen and remember.
As it happened, what Reagan was pitching that night part of his "New Federalism" plan to turn 40 programs back to the states met with only mixed success. But the technique became a lasting contribution to American political theater: "The-hero-in-the-balcony," a now pervasive rhetorical grabber that has played every January since, not only in the U.S. Capitol but in statehouses around the nation.
The tradition crosses state boundaries, government levels, and party lines. President Clinton saluted Capt. John Cherrey, an Air Force pilot who flew in Kosovo, and baseball Hall of Fame slugger Hank Aaron in his Jan. 27 State of the Union address, and "heroes" were also recognized in 18 of the 33 governors' State of the State addresses delivered as of Monday, January 31.
And in the years since Lenny Skutnik pulled off his coat and boots on the snowy banks of the Potomac, those who have followed him in the oratorical spotlight have shown that one need not risk one's life in order to provide governors with instructive models of citizenship.
Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles (D), who began honoring notable citizens during his first State of the State in 1995, paid tribute to three Alaskans during his address on Jan. 12. These included state Fish and Wildlife Trooper Scott Quist, who stayed out late in his bush plane one evening just before Christmas and rescued a pair of missing trekkers in harrowing weather and encroaching darkness.
Knowles also recognized the current Mrs. Alaska, a one-time victim of child abuse who with her husband has adopted two young victims of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome; and a 16 year-old student who overcame a long habit of inhalant abuse and now trumpets the dangers of that habit to students around the state.
"Their heroic acts and the uncelebrated actions of average Alaskans will enable this, the first generation of the 21st century, to be another generation that gives more to our state than it takes," Knowles told his audience.
Bob King, Knowles' press secretary, says saluting heroes in the gallery humanizes the speaker's themes and issues: "It is a simple and effective technique to literally put a face on an issue, to describe policy in the context of a real life story rather than wonkish terms."
"One of Knowles' initiatives involves improving foster care, so having a foster parent there helps people understand the issue," King said.
Many other governors also used symbolism to dramatize their agendas:
Back in Alaska, the GOP kicked off their official response to Knowles by congratulating each of the heroes he had cited thus grabbing a share of their limelight.
Meanwhile, the hero-in-the-balcony has become such a staple of American political life that many seem unaware of its Reaganesque origins. "I wasn't aware of the specific origins of the tradition, but I know that the practice of singling out invited guests has been fairly common in such speeches over the years," said one governor's press liaison.