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At some point during tonight’s State of the Union, President Barack Obama will likely glance up and to the left of his podium, gesture toward the gallery, and mention one of the unknown Americans seated in the first lady’s box. This year their names include Edith Childs and Earl Smith, but insiders have a different name for them: “Skutniks,” in reference to the first everyday American invited by a president to embellish the State of the Union.
Lenny Skutnik was a local hero, a Congressional Budget Office employee who plunged into the frigid Potomac after an Air Florida plane crash and saved the life of Priscilla Tirado, who was struggling to hold on to a helicopter lifeline. The act was captured on television, and President Ronald Reagan capitalized on Skutnik’s heroism by inviting him to sit next to the first lady. When Reagan recognized him during the speech, it set off a decades-long tradition of presidents using ordinary citizens as talking points.
Over the years, “Skutniks” have included a widow of a 9/11 victim and Daniel Hernandez, who saved Gabby Giffords’ life, in addition to some non-ordinary folks such as Afghan president Hamid Karzai and baseball player Sammy Sosa.
But what about the original?
We tracked Lenny Skutnik down at River Ridge, a senior community in Woodbridge, Virginia, where he moved after retiring from the Congressional Budget Office in 2010. Referred to by the CBO as its “most famous employee,” Skutnik now spends his days fishing and watching Chris Matthews and Bill O’Reilly, and—as it turns out—despairing about the state of the union.
Noah Weiland: What kind of time did you spend with the president after he invited you to the State of the Union?
Lenny Skutnick: I never met Reagan. I was sitting next to Nancy Reagan. She came in; I was real nervous. She patted me on the knee. That was the only interaction I had with the Reagans. I got a call prior to that from the president.
NW: How do you feel about the way you and your name have been used to explain what’s now a decades-long custom?
LS: How could I know it was going to be a phenomenon? I can’t read the future. I had no clue. They invited me, they sent a car to pick me up, took us to the Capitol, seated us, and the rest is history. During his speech, he mentioned my name and I got a standing ovation. Thunderous. It was loud. They get you in and get you out. Security wasn’t as tight.
NW: Do people still recognize you or your name?
LS: It isn’t a part of my life. Occasionally someone recognizes my name, but that’s it. They’re always putting something on the TV, on the Weather Channel. Someone will tell me they saw me. Occasionally I’ll be flipping channels and they’ll be covering it. It’s just repeat stuff.
NW: What do you think of the concept of “Lenny Skutniks”—the way people now talk about State of the Union guests?
LS: I have no control over people using my name. It took on a life of its own. Reagan was the first one who did it—it was tag-you’re-it. I was the first.
NW: What do you remember from the SOTU address you attended?
LS: I remember Reagan, Jeremiah Denton [a former senator from Alabama], who was one of the guests. We have not had a president, a real president, since [Reagan]. He’s the one that set the standard. For me, he’s the father of our country. He’s older; he’s distinguished. He and Nancy. Nancy Reagan had a lot to do with his successes.
NW: Do presidents overdo it with the guests these days? How have the SOTU guests been politicized?
LS: If you read Reagan’s speech, leading up to having me as a guest and mentioning my name, he talks about the everyday housewife [and] Jeremiah Denton. His speech and the way he coordinated it worked very good for him. Why do presidents now need twenty guests? I’m not going to judge that.
NW: Do you still watch the State of the Union?
LS: I watch the SOTU, to see who’s gonna be the guests. They get carried away with too many guests. I’ve watched every address. It’s the actual politics, the president, whoever it was … . Today they’re talking about the Obama administration—they want to get some Muslims in there, a Syrian refugee. What’s he trying to do? Piss everybody off? He’s an activist president. He’s nuts.
NW: So you’re keeping in touch with politics?
LS: Oh yeah. I’m following politics. Being at CBO as long as I was, you’re right there in the middle of it. I can’t get enough of it. I watch C-SPAN, the news channels, seeing who’s swinging which way. It’s ridiculous, this administration. That’s the politest way I can say it. There is no Democratic Party any longer. It’s the Disgusting Party. Everything that this administration is trying to do is disgusting. Pelosi is disgusting, Harry Reid is disgusting. The Democrats are disgusting.
NW: Do you feel conflicted about your time in government now?
LS: I believed in government. I was at the CBO, and it is truly a nonpartisan organization. You’re right in the middle of the politics. The work I did—the printing and reading; you could tell when there was a hot item going out the door. The two party system, the Constitution: I’m red, white and blue all over. It works. It’s going to change again. This administration, this guy who’s in the White House, is nuts. The sooner he gets out the better.
NW: Do you have a 2016 candidate?
LS: I have no clue yet, but Trump is saying things… there’s nobody backing him. He’s paying his own way. He’s saying what a lot of people are thinking. To the left, he’s nuts. They attack him. But he’s gaining ground. He could be the nominee. I don’t make my decision until I go to the polls.
NW: Do you identify with the modern Republican Party?
LS: I don’t know if you can call me a Republican. If you believe in God, you believe in the Constitution, you believe in the Second Amendment, you don’t believe in gay marriage, I guess you’re a Republican. If that’s what a Republican is, I guess I’m a Republican. The Democrats are the other, the opposite. I thought Democrats and Republicans thought the same way.
NW: How active are you in politics these days?
LS: I’m off the grid—I’m retired. I get to go to the polls and vote. That’s as much power as I have. The rest of it is politics. It works itself out.
NW: Do you have any plans for watching tonight? Do you still feel like you’re a part of the culture of the State of the Union?
LS: I got my fifteen minutes of fame. That’s it. Wednesday is the anniversary [of the Air Florida crash]. I bought a few Powerball tickets. I don’t get carried away.
This interview has been shortened and lightly edited for clarity.