It is widely attributed that President Ronald Reagan began the tradition of inviting special guests to the State of the Union — and later Inaugural Addresses, when on January 26, 1982, he had invited and acknowledged Lenny Skutnik, the federal employee who earlier dove into the partly frozen Potomac River and saved a woman after the Air Florida crash.
But few recall that the tradition actually had begun fully fifteen years earlier — by Governor Reagan, during a time when Vietnam was just entering the mainstream of American thought.
Just prior to his gubernatorial Inaugural Address on January 5, 1967, Reagan had arranged that a small California state flag be flown from the ceiling. As he was finishing his remarks, he then called attention to both the flag and a special guest seated in the audience near Nancy Reagan:
"If, in glancing aloft, some of you were puzzled by the small size of our state flag, there is an explanation. That flag was carried to Vietnam by young men of California. Many will not be coming home. One did."
Reagan then pointed upwards and to his left, and the audience saw a man in uniform sitting near Mrs. Reagan. Reagan continued, "Sergeant Robert Howell, grievously wounded, is here today. He brought that flag back."
Reagan concluded, "I thought we would be proud to have it fly over the Capitol today. It might even serve to put our problems in better perspective. It might remind us of the need to give our sons and daughters a cause to believe in and banners to follow. If this is a dream, it is a good dream, worthy of our generation and worth passing on to the next."
Governor Reagan had looked to the future and had sought national unity, even as the divisiveness of Vietnam was just starting. His invitation to, and acknowledgement of, the service and sacrifices of Americans in general and this one wounded sergeant in particular, had made personal the headlines that citizens were reading. President Trump has followed in Reagan's footsteps, as he has sought national unity by lifting the economic boats for all citizens and has sought for Americans to stop seeing all issues along divisive racial and ethnic lines.
For the upcoming 2019 State of the Union Address, this tradition is being turned into a political stunt, as the "loyal" Democratic opposition in the House of Representatives is apparently bringing in their own guests to use for their own partisan purposes.
One hopes that today's Democrat leaders will learn the lessons of Governor, and President Reagan, to seek unity in America by working with President Trump rather than only seeking divisiveness.
Gene Kopelson is the author of "Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK, and Reagan’s Emergence as a World Statesman" (Figueroa Press, 2016) and has published about Reagan’s 1966 successful gubernatorial campaign with Americans of Mexican descent. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.