Millions will watch Tuesday’s State of the Union speech, but only a couple of dozen will do so from the most important perch: the first lady’s box.
President Obama’s list this year includes a doctor working to stop the spread of Ebola, union workers benefiting from a stronger economy, a victim of gun violence, a government worker freed in a prisoner exchange as part of the outreach to Cuba, and an illegal immigrant who has remained in the country under Mr. Obama’s temporary deportation amnesty.
“Their grit and dedication represent what’s best about this country,” first lady Michelle Obama said in a statement inviting the rest of the country to tune in to watch along with her guests.
Part oratorical punctuation for the president’s priorities and part rose-tinted window into America’s soul, the box has hosted mayors and Marines, overachieving schoolchildren and visionary entrepreneurs, and the occasional heroic everyman who stepped up when the time called for it.
But they also serve as proxies for the rest of the country — the lucky few who represent everyone else.
“I constantly think back on it. It’s a lot like winning the lottery,” Chris Getsla, who at age 13 sat in the first lady’s box for President Clinton’s 1997 address to Congress. “I was very lucky to be chosen, very lucky to be part of it. I think back on it, reflect on it — a very important part of my life.”
Mr. Getsla was chosen along with a female classmate and their teacher because they were among the students in the Chicago suburbs who stunned the globe and became counterpunches to claims of American educational decline, tying for first in the world in science scores and placing second in math.
“They prove that when we aim high and challenge our students, they will be the best in the world,” Mr. Clinton said.
Steven Ramos attended in 2001, when President Bush delivered his first address to Congress in the chamber and issued a call for lawmakers to pass his tax cut proposal. Mr. Ramos and his wife were picked as examples of Americans who could benefit.
Mr. Bush highlighted the Ramoses during the 2000 campaign at stops in Pennsylvania, where the couple would be on stage with their daughter. But the State of the Union was a bigger stage.
Mr. Ramos said he remembered a press conference on Capitol Hill where he expected to be a silent example, but the congressman leading the press conference suddenly turned to him and asked whether he had any comments.
“I think I said something foolish, and we moved along,” Mr. Ramos recalled in a telephone interview last week.
Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff for first lady Laura Bush, said the president, first lady and other key staffers squirrel away ideas throughout the year based on letters they receive or people they meet.
Final decisions are made closer to the speech, when the president has settled on his priorities and has a better sense of the people who match his message.
“They’re looking to select individuals who reflect, from their perspectives in a positive way, their issues and priorities they have for the American people, and also reflect the generosity, the compassion, the example of the American spirit,” said Ms. McBride, who is now executive in residence at American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.
She recalled the symbolism of speeches by Mr. Bush, who would host troops wounded in Iraq or the parents of a soldier killed in the fight, sitting them near an Iraqi woman who was able to vote for the first time thanks to their sacrifices.
Just as with anyone scheduled to meet with the president, a lot of vetting goes into the guests for fear of public relations missteps. Still, some guests later prove problematic.
Baseball slugger Sammy Sosa was in the box in 1999, and six years later he was back before Congress, sitting at a witness table to testify through his attorney that he had never taken steroids. His name later emerged on a list of dozens of players who tested positive for a banned substance.
Mr. Bush hosted leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan as those conflicts were raging. In 2004, Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress and a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, sat in the box. Four months later, American troops raided his home in Iraq and U.S. officials accused him of passing information to Iran.
But troublesome guests are rare, and first ladies for the most part host the accomplished and the brave.
It began with Lenny Skutnik. President Reagan pointed him out in the gallery in 1982 and hailed him as an everyday hero for having dived into the icy Potomac River to rescue passengers from the Air Florida jet crash.
Rosa Parks, the civil rights icon, was in the box for Mr. Clinton’s 1999 speech, and Mr. Bush in 2007 pointed out Wesley Autrey, a New York City construction worker who jumped in front of an oncoming subway train to rescue a man who had fallen onto the tracks. In 2010, Mrs. Obama hosted Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot whose emergency landing maneuvers on the Hudson River in New York saved the lives of all 155 passengers and crew on his plane.
Mr. Getsla said it’s striking to know that he was sitting where heroes have sat.
“We were there for a very different reason. We were highlighting education, and I’m privileged that we could be a highlight of what we can do when education is put as a priority,” he said. “But as far as the heroes that have saved people’s lives, that’s a whole different category and I’m humbled we were in that same box.”
Only a few of the two to three dozen guests invited to sit with the first lady are mentioned during the speech, and some years presidents don’t mention anyone at all. But even those who aren’t highlighted are immortalized on the list that the White House issues and in the stories they generate — particularly in hometown papers, where meeting the president is a big deal.
It’s special for the White House, too, Ms. McBride said.
“For many of them, this may be the one and only time that they meet the president or come to the White House. It is a great reminder that everybody is welcome there — everybody. This is the people’s house, and it’s a responsibility of the president and the first lady to open up the door and welcome them in there,” she said.
Guests sometimes ride in vans along with the presidential motorcade, and others are already at the Capitol. Their families often are hosted at the White House during the speech.
Mr. Ramos recalled touring the Speaker’s Balcony, a majestic perch that looks out on the National Mall to the west of the Capitol, which he said was like being a conquering Ceasar.
Mr. Getsla recalled his ride in the motorcade. “All the lights are green all the way down the road,” he said.
After the 1997 speech, Mr. Getsla and other guests were invited back to the White House for a party with Mr. Clinton. Mr. Getsla’s birthday was the day after the speech. When the party strayed past midnight, the social secretary nudged Mr. Clinton and told him. The president put his arm around Mr. Getsla and sang him “Happy Birthday.”