On Balcony Heroes

Many media outlets gave Donald Trump high praise for the so-called “balcony heroes” he used during his first State of the Union Address last week.  The bloggers at Harvard University Press remind us that Ronald Reagan was the first president to weave these heroic stories into his State of the Union addresses.  They also remind us that Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers wrote about Reagan’s balcony heroes in his Bancroft Prize-winning book The Age of Fracture.

Here is a taste of Rodgers (as cited by the Harvard UP blog):

The impulse to disaggregate and individualize the people took still more prominent symbolic form in the so-called heroes in the balcony segment of his State of the Union messages. Reagan did not inaugurate the practice of calling forward an individual’s special deeds in a major state address. He was the first, however, to take the inherently public occasion of a report on the nation from the chief of one branch of government to the heads of another and dissolve it, toward the end, into a montage of individual faces. Heroes, volunteers, teenagers with dreams, returned prisoners of war were gathered in the halls of Congress, where Reagan, stepping out of the camera’s eye once more, would introduce them one by one. In 1963, John Kennedy had read the names of three American soldiers killed in Cuba, South Korea, and Vietnam. But here they now were in the flesh, where the applause, the acts of individual accomplishment, and the guest-program tableau all redounded to the administration’s acclaim. The first three heroes in the balconies appeared in Reagan’s State of the Union address in 1982; five more appeared in 1984, two in 1985, four in 1986.

Reagan was fond of saying that his political opponents saw people only as members of groups; his party, to the contrary, saw the people of America as individuals. In fact, no set of Americans was ever chosen with a keener grasp of interest group politics than were Reagan’s heroes in the balconies. A charitable black woman reassured Reagan’s audience that the president had not forgotten the poor; a Hispanic medic drew sympathy for the Grenada invasion; a returned prisoner of war appealed to the patriotic electorate; a teenager whose experiment had been lost in the Challenger explosion lobbied silently for the high frontier of space; the two business figures on the list, a black female advertising executive and a Cuban refugee entrepreneur, spoke to the aspiration of minority business owners.

But the collective calculations of politics brooked no mention. Introduced by the presidential program host, the constituent atoms of the people stood up, for their moment in the camera’s eye, one by one. Reagan asked viewers, not to imitate them or to rise to the challenge they set, but only to applaud them, to believe that their acts were possible. “We the people,” as a collective entity, tacitly disaggregated under the touch.

Read the entire passage here.