Where can a guy write a State of the Union speech?
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."