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The "Skutnick": How I learned to stop worrying and love the blog

Lenny Skutnick.

If that name means nothing to you, it's time to sit up and pay attention. Especially if you're a working political hack.

Over the last 25 years, who was the most effective Republican on stump and stage? Who was the most effective Democrat on stump and stage? The answer's easy. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

What was the one oratorical talent they both had in common - and that very few other politicians can replicate without looking silly? A hint: Lenny Skutnick.

Who was Lenny Skutnick?

Skutnik was a young worker at the Congressional Budget Office. He had been driving home from work when Air Florida Flight 90 fell from the sky just 20 seconds after takeoff from Washington National Airport. Skutnik jumped out of his car near the Fourteenth Street Bridge, where a crowd watched helplessly as a female passenger screamed for help in the icy waters. A helicopter rescue team had tossed her a line, but she was unable to hold on. Skutnik instinctively ripped off his overcoat, kicked off his shoes, dove into the river, and pulled 22-year-old flight attendant Priscilla Tirado to safety. She and four others survived. (source)

Then, two weeks later, at Ronald Reagan's state of the union address, he turned and looked up into the gallery to his left and said:

"Just two weeks ago, in the midst of a terrible tragedy on the Potomac, we saw again the spirit of American heroism at its finest -- the heroism of dedicated rescue workers saving crash victims from icy waters. We saw the heroism of one of our young government employees, Lenny Skutnik, who, when he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety."

OK, what's this all got to do with blogs?

Blogs are a very personal form of communication. Unlike a press release or a white paper or an op-ed, a blog allows candidates to tell personal stories, to recount tales, to be funny, insightful, wistful, and profound.

In short, a blog can humanize a politician.

I've seen it happen right here in Portland, Oregon. City Commissioner Randy Leonard - a notoriously hard-to-like fella - has made friends and defused his enemies with his direct and approachable style on BlueOregon.com. He's written obituaries for great but unknown citizens, drawn parallels between his patriotic forebears and the Patriot Act, lamented the loss of a favorite NBA coach, acknowledged an obsession with the Jeopardy! quiz show, and even demanded (with grace and wit) a retraction from a columnist who called him "short".

Lenny Skutnick. His name has become shorthand in White House speechwriter lingo for making sure to always include a humanizing and inspirational story about a real person in major speeches. Sure, it can easily become cliche and schlocky, but there's a kernel of brilliance there.

You may never get to give a State of the Union address. But stop cutting and pasting press releases, white papers, and fact sheets into your blog. Instead, find ways to include your own Skutnicks.

Get human. The voters will reward you.

Posted on August 19, 2005 in