Channeling Lenny Skutnik: As he delivered what he billed as a major policy speech in Washington today, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor relied on guests in the audience to illustrate his party's desire to "make life work better" and concern for average folks.

The address at the American Enterprise Institute was short on specific policy prescriptions, other than criticisms of President Barack Obama's health-care law and a broad call for a pathway to citizenship for the children of undocumented workers.

Instead, the Virginia Republican sought to present a more caring image for his party.

His guests included a Washington family that benefited from the Republicans' school-scholarship/voucher program in the capital; a Chinese-born engineering student who Cantor said was emblematic of the high-skilled workers who should be helped by efforts to change immigration laws; a nurse who had undergone disc-replacement surgery that he said would now be more difficult to obtain because of the tax on medical devices under Obama's health-care law; and a 12-year-old-girl suffering from a brain tumor. Her case, Cantor said, underscores the need for government-funded medical research, as well as the need to cut through bureaucratic red tape.

The presence of guests at important political events is a time-worn Washington tradition, begun by President Ronald Reagan in his 1982 State of the Union speech. Two weeks before that address, on a freezing January day, an airplane had crashed into the Potomac River shortly after takeoff from Washington's National Airport. Lenny Skutnik, a government employee, jumped in the icy water to help rescue passengers, eventually saving a life. Reagan honored his heroism by inviting him to sit with the first lady and praising him during the State of the Union address.

One week from tonight, Obama will give his State of the Union address. It's a safe bet there will be some human props.

(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)

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