WASHINGTON — IN the weeks leading up to the president's first State of the Union address, chief speechwriter Michael Gerson has been in need of a quiet place to think.
His West Wing basement office - coveted as it may be for its proximity to power - is not it. Cramped, windowless, and loud, it is hardly conducive to the inspiration a presidential wordsmith needs to help set the country's course for the next year.
So Mr. Gerson wanders. He steps across West Executive Avenue to a cavernous office in the Old Executive Office Building, which is part of the White House complex. Or after hours, he goes to the near-empty Starbucks on Pennsylvania Avenue, where, alone and anonymous, he scribbles on a yellow legal pad.
It's no wonder Gerson seeks an oasis of calm. Next to an inaugural address, or the hang-on-every-word oratory called for during history- altering events like the Sept. 11 attacks, the State of the Union is the most important speech in the presidential repertoire - more so this year. A Pew Research Center poll shows that 54 percent of Americans say this year's address is more important than in years past. Just 27 percent said that about Bill Clinton's State of the Union in 1999 - the impeachment year.
"The simple fact is that 9/11 and its aftermath have given a kind of focus to public discourse that didn't exist previously," says William Galston, a former adviser to President Clinton.
The uncertainties of terrorism and recession will draw more attention to this year's speech than any of the last decade, he says. Adding to the pressure to produce a powerful oratorical punch, political analysts say that the Muslim world, the global financial markets, and US allies in the war on terrorism will watch closely too.
None of this is lost on Gerson, his speechwriting team, or other key players such as Karen Hughes, counselor to the president, and Josh Bolton, the policy director. In late November and early December, this group began to put together ideas and talk to President Bush about the themes and goals he wanted to project. Then they came up with an outline - the president insists on outlines - and then the drafts. It's not uncommon for a major Bush speech to cycle through 17 or 18 drafts.
While Gerson crafts the first draft, Bush directs the themes, says Anne Womack, a White House spokesperson. Bush believes three things matter most: the war against terrorism; defending the homeland from future terrorist attacks; and reviving the economy. Tuesday's speech will amplify these themes, and tie them together with the star-spangled ribbon of national security.
But don't expect it to ride the lofty rhetorical waves of the Bush's September speech before the joint session of Congress - a defining moment in his presidency, elevating his image among many Americans from tongue-tied politico to commander-in-chief.
"We're in a different place. This will be the president's opportunity to lay out what his goals are and where he wants to take us," says an administration official. "There will be specifics in there, particularly on his three goals."
At the same time, it won't be the near-90-minute laundry lists Americans grew used to with Clinton's eight State of the Union speeches. In preparing for his, Clinton scavenged for ideas. One year he loaded vans with leading thinkers and brought them to Camp David for a seminar with his senior staff and the vice president. Another year he had them to dinner in the executive mansion.
"Differences of time and circumstance call for different strategies," says Mr. Galston. Although a Democrat, he was called to the White House during this year's speech-writing cycle to share his ideas on civic involvement. It's an important subject for Americans who wonder what they can do in the war on terrorism.
At the heart of this year's address is the trio of Gerson, Hughes, and of course, the president.
Gerson, an evangelical Christian and an early architect of the Republican "compassionate conservatism," was handpicked by the president. Lauded in Washington as unusually talented, he's full of nervous energy, leaving teeth marks on his ball point pens and reading first drafts aloud as he paces a room. When then-governor Bush read Gerson's words at the Republican Convention in 2000, the speechwriter couldn't bear the tension of actually being in the arena. Instead, he walked around Philadelphia, trying to take his mind off it.
Nicknamed "the scribe" by his boss, he knows his presidential speeches. To prepare for the inaugural, he read every single previous inaugural address.
Though Gerson wasn't available for an interview for this article, former presidential speechwriters describe the State of the Union experience as intense - even scary.
"You have to pace yourself," says Don Baer, once a Clinton speechwriter. You become a ping-pong ball, he says, bouncing between various aides, the president, and a flood of incoming ideas.
The White House has tried to control that by not formally soliciting from outsiders and tightening the circle of people reviewing the drafts of this speech, says Ms. Womack.
In Gerson's circle, Hughes is a major influence. Once a Texas TV reporter, she has an ear for the soundbite, and more important, she knows the president's voice. She describes her boss's natural style as "eloquent simplicity," and is constantly after speechwriters to drop the gobbledygook of policy talk.
It was to Hughes that Bush turned to get the ball rolling on his September address, and her desk is the last stop before Gerson's drafts reach the president.
But both players do work together with Bush. Unlike Clinton, who constantly wrote in blocks of text, Bush prunes. Simplifying, making sure words are easily pronounceable. He's not a fan of long speeches.
By tomorrow night, the president will have gone through multiple practice runs, in which the speech scrolls by on a TelePrompTer, and Gerson and Hughes act as coaches. But whether "the scribe" will be able to stand the suspense and actually watch the real thing, is anybody's guess.