How a Presidential Speech Is Crafted
Communicating in the age of the soundbite
A President is judged as much by what he says as by what he does. For President Clinton, tonight is one of those moments.Skip to next paragraph
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When he steps to the podium to deliver his State of the Union address, millions of Americans and policymakers around the world will be listening for both the evident and inferred messages. They will also be witnessing the culmination of one of the quiet but great tensions in modern politics - between the speech writer and the speech deliverer.
The president spent all last Friday closeted with two aides revising the address, capping a process that began months ago. Like most presidents' remarks, Mr. Clinton's public utterances may contain his own thoughts, but the words are usually put on paper by someone else. When making speeches, a president is an impressionistic version of himself, not a photograph.
Writers generally agree on the principal elements of a great presidential speech. It should contain a central theme or a vision of how to solve some current dilemma. It should denounce an identifiable foe. "If you've got a war or a national depression on your hands," says one former presidential speech writer, "you can't miss."
Memorable phrases are enormous assets. Among many uttered by modern chief executives, Franklin Roosevelt's address to Congress after the attack on Pearl Harbor is considered especially eloquent: "Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Japanese empire..."
Planning for grand presidential speeches begins with a round table that includes Clinton, some cabinet members and top aides, as well as a senior member of the speechwriting staff. They discuss the main subject of the planned oration and dissect its inferences and implications. The participants at the round table survey the peaks and ravines of public opinion to determine how the president's popularity will be effected by various versions of the address.
Armed with what is, in essence, a template, a speech writer goes to work on a first draft. Harry MacPherson, a Washington lawyer who served as President Lyndon Johnson's special counsel and chief speech writer, says, "The trick is to know what the president thinks, not how he sounds. It's what he wants to be involved in at this time of his life."
Once written, the first draft is edited and passed around to various department heads and cabinet members. More round tables are convened. Even if the speech has no bearing on their specialties, influential senior officials sometimes manage to have a paragraph inserted - international terrorism was worked into the Oklahoma City speech, inflation was mentioned in another address that Clinton intended to focus on civility.
One or several speech writers then go back to work. The next few drafts are amended and the final result is often "bookends," in the words of one White House speech writer. "You get the substance of the speech at the beginning and the end," he says, "with all the other messages and mentions squished in between."
Five speech writers are currently serving Clinton. They are part of a complex system of crafting important orations like the State of the Union or the speech Clinton gave after the Oklahoma City bombing. Speech writers also produce smaller, briefer utterances for the president - toasts at state dinners, greetings to important visitors, and other seemingly innocuous remarks that Eisenhower's two speech writers called "Rose Garden rubbish."
Occasionally, Mr. Clinton insists on a text devoted entirely to one principal subject. The president himself is considered a good writer, although experts say his style tends to resemble 19th-century sermons.
All presidents, though, have their own peculiarities in how speeches are crafted. Harry Truman took the finished draft of every major speech to Mrs. Truman. "It invariably came back improved and more human," one former speech writer recalls.
Richard Nixon had a conservative writer, Pat Buchanan, a man in the center, Ray Price, with William Safire on the moderate left (in the Nixon context). President Eisenhower had been a speech writer himself - for Gen. Douglas MacArthur - and was quite demanding of his own writers who sometimes turned out a dozen drafts.
Historically, most presidents wrote their own oratory - and most of it was pretty bad. Jefferson and Lincoln were notable exceptions. Alexander Hamilton sometimes assisted George Washington. He is supposed to be the principal author of Washington's farewell address.
Professional speech writers have worked in the White House since the 1920s. The first one - in the Coolidge administration - was a veteran Republican politician named Judson Welliver. There is a society of professional speech writers in Washington named after him.
When Clinton steps to the podium tonight, members of that club - and millions of others - will be listening. For, even in this age of the sound bite, words spoken by the president still reverberate around the world.