• AP Photo/Roberto Borea
  • Sammy Sosa at the plate in 2003, four years after Bill Clinton paid him homage during a State of the Union address

Every year at about this time, the president, his cabinet, Congress, and the Supreme Court gather in the House chamber to honor the nation’s Lenny Skutnik winner. The president also gives a speech.

The Lenny Skutnik tribute began in 1982, during Ronald Reagan’s first State of the Union address. Skutnik had been a bystander when a plane crashed into the Potomac River on January 13, 1982. He dove into the icy waters and saved a woman, and his heroics were captured by TV news cameras. Two weeks later, there he was, seated next to Nancy Reagan at the SOTU, a useful symbol for the Great Manipulator’s upbeat message. Skutnik personified “the spirit of American heroism at its finest,” Reagan said. “Don’t let anyone tell you that America’s best days are behind her, that the American spirit has been vanquished.” Skutnik looked uncomfortable during his standing O, but a tradition was born.