How Ordinary Americans End Up in the State of the Union Address

One of Ronald Reagan’s greatest gifts to us was the inclusion of Lenny Skutnik in his 1982 State of the Union, the hero who rescued plane crash survivors from the sub-zero Potomac. Since then, every president has had the privilege of publicly recognizing such inspiration throughout his address.

This was my favorite part of working on the State of the Union. I would smile from my office as Laura Dean, our assistant speechwriter and expert researcher, called the bewildered people who made it into the speech. “Yes, that’s right, the President of the United States. No, this isn’t a prank.”

This is President Obama’s favorite part, too—particularly the story that’s often told to conclude the speech. My old boss is a sucker for good endings, and he would send us far and wide to find just the right anecdote. In 2011, a worker from a Pennsylvania firm whose drilling technology helped save the Chilean miners said, “We proved that Center Rock is a little company, but we do big things.” The President loved the quote, and turned it into an entire ending about American greatness and aspiration. In 2012, I remember the tears in his eyes as he told us that his proudest possession was the American flag that the SEAL team took with them on the Osama bin Laden mission, and later gave to the president as a gift. He turned that story into an ending about the unity and teamwork that defines America at its best.

Undoubtedly, the President and Cody are hard at work on another such ending for this year’s speech, and I can’t wait to hear it live. There will always be people who mock these stories as overly sappy and trite, but I think that our politics and the media give us enough reasons to be cynical every other day of the year. For one hour tonight, we get the chance to be inspired together. To me, that makes all the fuss worthwhile.

Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau writing last year in The Daily Beast about how the President prepares for the State of the Union address.