Abstract

This essay traces how Ronald Reagan’s invocation of Lenny Skutnik in his 1982 State of the Union address inaugurated a new generic norm for the president’s annual message to Congress. We argue that the invocation of a “Skutnik” enables presidents to display—both rhetorically and physically—the civic ideals they wish to laud, the national issues they deem important, and policy proposals they want to advance. When U.S. presidents honor individual citizens and seat them in the House Gallery before the nation and the world, these “Skutniks” fuse the judicial, epideictic, and deliberative characteristics of the State of the Union address. Abstract values and complicated policy agendas are simplified—and vivified—before the eyes. The body of the “Skutnik,” we argue, is particularly persuasive because it offers a physical representation of the overall body politic, a living, breathing metaphor testifying that the state of the union is, in fact, strong.

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