By Rivka Willick
When does a story turn into propaganda? I have no doubt that we will get a chance to ponder that question once again during the next State of the Union Address when one or more Skutniks will be woven into the annual speech.
What’s a Skutnik? I’m glad you asked. A Skutnik is a story about a real person who has done something exceptional or noteworthy and is woven into the US President’s State of the Union.
Ronald Reagan began the tradition in 1982 when he invited Lenny Skutnik as a personal guest. Just two weeks before, Jan 13, 1982, this everyman witnessed a plane crash into the Washington D.C.’s 14th Street Bridge. He saw a woman lose her grip on a rescue line and fall into the water. Lenny dove into the river and saved her. Reagan, “The Great Communicator”, used Skutnik as an example of “the spirit of American heroism at it’s finest.” The camera found Lenny seated next to Nancy Reagan, which surprised him. Americans cheered, after all who doesn’t love a hero?
Two years later Reagan singled out another hero in his 1985 State of the Union, Sergeant Stephen Trujillo who showed heroism during the U.S military action in Grenada. From that point on this storytelling technique became a staple in all the State of the Unions, regardless of political affiliation.
In 1986 13-year-old Trevor Ferell’s efforts to deliver food and blankets to the homeless in Philadelphia became a story about American generosity.
President Bill Clinton made eighth grader Kristin Tanner a symbol of American academic superiority when she brought in high scores in the Third International Math and Science Study.
Geroge W Bush told Hermis Moutardier’s story in 2002. He was one of two flight attendants who stopped shoe bomber Richard Reid from detonating an explosive on a Paris to Miami flight. Houston Rocket’s center, Dikembe Mutombo joined the Skutnik club in 2007 when Bush used his story about raising $29 million to build a hospital in Africa in his State of the Union address.
Barack Obama singled out Mr. and Mrs. Pendleton, parents of Hadiya Pendleton who was gunned down in Chicago just days after singing at his Inauguration.
Last year Trump took the “everyman story” to a new level. He did 16 Skutniks…(Mr. President, maybe less is more.)
So now that you know what a Skutnik is and how it is used, are you ready to tackle the question? Is there a place for these heart tugging personal ‘real people stories’ in the State of the Union? Are they used unfairly to draw people to one side or are they a manipulative tool ? Do they illustrate ‘American Exceptionalism’ or use individuals accomplishments to promote a specific political agenda? Is this storytelling technique used in other countries during policy speeches or is it just an American Institution?
When does inspiration in a story stop and propaganda begin?
Let me know what you think.
Rivka works as a storycoach online, in person, and in workshops. She’s also a storyteller and writer. Contact her at Rivka@simplyextraordinarytales.com