State of the Union stew

Try to imagine Julia Child, Emeril, and the Galloping Gourmet, assigned to create the perfect stew. Each volunteers a sure-fire recipe for a culinary home run.

"Beef," says Julia. "Chicken," demands Emeril. "Fish," says the Galloping Gourmet. Before long, the pot is brimming with nearly every imaginable ingredient, and the "perfect" stew turns out perfectly dreadful.

That, more often than not, is what it's like to write a State of the Union speech. Everybody wants their piece of the action - Cabinet secretaries, White House staff, political consultants, lobbyists, and the Aunt Marthas who all call with a "terrific" idea. The speechwriter's job is to keep it on broad themes so it doesn't sink of its own weight.

When working on the first President Bush's State of the Union addresses, we dreamed of taking away Chief of Staff John Sununu's phone to keep him from agreeing to more additions.

"Another secretary called this morning," he'd say. "We can find a spot for just one more small mention, can't we?"

"No!" we'd silently scream and then, under his withering glance, look for a hole.

Mr. Sununu had a penchant for secrecy and control that often posed problems for us, but it was most apparent at this time of year. We always had to leave room for "the rabbit" (as in, pulling a rabbit out of the hat) - an announcement designed to give the media meat to go with a lot of bones. The "meat" usually ended up small potatoes.

There are other reasons that few State of the Unions are found in compendiums of great speeches. Most presidential remarks that earn their place do so because they made an extraordinary connection with the audience at a key moment, during war, tragedy, or great achievement.

But the State of Union is an artificial occasion, rarely alongside a historic event.

We remember FDR's "Day of Infamy" speech after Pearl Harbor. We remember President Reagan's poignant remarks after the Challenger tragedy instead of the State of the Union a week later. John F. Kennedy's first inaugural defined his presidency.

Few State of the Union speeches have imprinted the national psyche to the same degree. Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" State of the Union address in 1941 is the exception. We may recall effective lines - Clinton declaring the "era of big government is over." Or visual effects - Reagan's "heroes" sitting in the House balcony. But most have been fairly mundane, part national report card, part presidential pitch for legislative priorities.

The former President Bush complicated our lives by scribbling in the margins of drafts the words feared by all Bush speechwriters: "too much rhetoric." That was Bushspeak for emotional language that made him uncomfortable. Truth be told, his heart would often get the better of him as he tried to express his feelings in speeches, especially when talking about the men and women of the military. He couldn't get through the words.

So, what does make a good State of the Union address? Writing for two quite different audiences - the American public and the Washington political class - is perhaps the biggest challenge. Inside Washington, delivery matters, but the speech is always micro-judged on its policy content. Some assess the speech by how much new spending or how many new programs it contains. Not enough of either, and the president is tagged as heartless.

For others, spending cuts and less government define success. Meanwhile, the town goes into overdrive trying to decipher who's up and who's down by parsing the president's words.

Outside the Beltway, most Americans use a different prism. They ask: Does the president share my values? Did he exhibit leadership? This year also add: Does he care about the economic problems of real people? Did he make me feel safer?

Oh, and did he answer these questions in under an hour? Unlike the Beltway calculator crowd, most Americans want to leave the table satisfied but not stuffed. I would argue that when a president meets the expectations of the people, he has succeeded.

When George W. Bush takes the podium tomorrow night, he faces a daunting task. His post-Sept. 11 speech to Congress will make the next edition of "greatest speeches," and that's a tough act to follow.

But there is still a lot of emotion in the air, which will give the speech lift. If he addresses the economic and security concerns of the people through their prism, he can define what makes a good State of the Union.

• Chriss Winston, the first woman to head the White House Office of Speechwriting (1989-91), is a director of the White House Writers Group.

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