State of the Union guests are people, not props

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State of the Union guests are people, not props

(Illustration by Abigail Katz | Staff Illustrator)

(Illustration by Abigail Katz | Staff Illustrator)

(Illustration by Abigail Katz | Staff Illustrator)

(Illustration by Abigail Katz | Staff Illustrator)

By Maggie Durwald | Columnist

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From war veterans to heroic police officers to victims of gang violence, President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address last week provided the kind of emotions and theatrics one would expect from a reality TV showman of his caliber. He introduced a lineup of tragic and inspiring stories from American citizens — but ultimately the spectacle ended on a sour note.

The strategic idea of inviting civilians as guests wasn’t his brainchild, of course. The tradition dates back to 1982, when then President Ronald Reagan — a showman himself — invited Lenny Skutnik to sit with Nancy Reagan during his State of the Union address.

Skutnik rose to national fame when a news team caught him on camera rescuing a drowning woman in the freezing waters of the Potomac River after a passenger airplane had crashed.

In his State of the Union address two weeks after the crash, Reagan lauded Skutnik as one of the “countless, quiet, everyday heroes of American life.” The acknowledgement took only two sentences, but Reagan had unwittingly started a State of the Union tradition of inviting everyday American heroes, branded “Skutniks,” to attend.

Trump wasn’t one to depart from a tradition that makes for such good television. Rather than focus on his administration’s own accomplishments and goals, he used a record-breaking 17 Skutniks to breeze over the fact that he had very little to celebrate.

It was a safe and easy choice to rely on others’ stories to get him through the speech, given his general lack of oratorical skills. But he needlessly politicized stories of tragedy and heroism in ways that were ultimately detrimental to the people he invited.

Trump’s guests covered all the political talking points, including Coast Guard Petty Officer Ashlee Leppert, who was one of the first responders during Hurricane Harvey and California firefighter David Dahlberg, who saved children at a summer camp from the surrounding wildfires.

Other notable guests included small business people like Steve Staub, Sandy Keplinger and Corey Adams, whose work in a steel manufacturing plant was apparently positively affected by the president’s tax cuts.

Skutniks typically act as a unifying force within the address, a bipartisan example of American suffering, bravery and courage. But with each guest, Trump seemed to dig into one group of Americans or another — making for a truly divisive speech.

And who better to use than Preston Sharp, a young boy who marks thousands of unadorned veterans’ graves with American flags, as a model for the kind of authentic patriotism Trump doesn’t possess.

“Preston’s reverence for those who have served our nation reminds us why we salute our flag,” Trump said. “Why we put our hands on our hearts for the pledge of allegiance, and why we proudly stand for the national anthem.”

Suddenly, instead of being just an honest boy doing nonpolitical community service, Sharp became an instrument against those fighting for racial equality  — an unnecessarily pessimistic view of Sharp’s good deeds. Trump managed to use a child — who apparently understands patriotism better than he does — to taunt NFL players and Democrats who supported NFL protests.

And as his droning continued, so did his nasty pattern of twisting both acts of service and tragic disasters into a cause for applause. Up next — the immigration portion of the program. Trump told the story of Evelyn Rodriguez and Freddy Cuevas, parents of Kayla Cuevas, and Elizabeth Alvarado and Robert Mickens, parents of Nisa Mickens. Kayla and Nisa were murdered by members of the MS-13 gang in Long Island, New York, who were living in the United States illegally.

Trump went on, amidst the parents’ tears, to use the example of MS-13 as an example of the status quo for illegal immigration into the United States. Listening to Trump peddle the girls’ cold-blooded murders as an argument against the status of people entering the United States illegally felt like a tactless misrepresentation of immigrants.

At a moment when almost 800,000 Dreamersfates are at the mercy of a divided Congress, these innocent Skutniks are now involuntary involved in Trump’s agenda. The Cuevas and Mickens families are now figureheads in a narrative portraying immigrants as criminals, a legacy that neither fixes their past nor helps their futures as immigrants in the United States.

A North Korean torture survivor and a police officer turned adoptive father of an opioid addict’s baby — these were just two guests Trump chose to have at his first State of the Union address. They are people from all walks of life, of diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds.

Each played an integral role in framing some aspect of Trump’s speech, and each had their story trampled on by the president’s divisive rhetoric and his history of race baiting.

They won’t be remembered for their stories. They’ll be immortalized as pawns and props in the president’s attempt to distract his audience from an administration in shambles.

Maggie primarily writes about social issues and economics for The Pitt News. Write to Maggie at

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