State of the Union: The crafting of a speech

A former White House speechwriter tells what goes into drafting the State of the Union address and how the annual message to Congress has changed since the days of quill pens.

By , / Correspondent

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    President Obama gesturing during his 2010 State of the Union address.
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    President Obama greeted members of Congress as he made his way to the podium to deliver his State of the Union message on Jan. 27, 2010.
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    In a tableau similar to today, President Eisenhower delivered a State of the Union message to Congress on Jan. 7, 1960.
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    President Bush acknowledged applause during his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2003.
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    President Reagan singled out Lenny Skutnik (center, with mustache) as a hero during the 1982 State of the
    Union for jumping into the icy Potomac River to save a passenger after a jetliner crash.
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The election was over. He'd won. But there was still something gnawing at Woodrow Wilson in the winter of 1913.

Teddy Roosevelt! So unfair! People dismissed Wilson's victory over Roosevelt, the volatile former Rough Rider. They said Wilson had won only because William Howard Taft had split the Republican vote.

They said that in a two-man race, Roosevelt, who ran as the "Bull Moose" candidate, would have romped over the schoolmasterish former president of Princeton. Preposterous!

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What bold step could he take to out-Roosevelt Roosevelt? To make people see him in a new light?

Well, in 1801 Thomas Jefferson had decided that making a speech of what was then called the "President's Annual Message" looked too "kingly" – like the pomp-filled "Speech from the Throne" delivered by those hated British monarchs. Ever since, American presidents had just written out the message. Aides carried it over to Congress.

What about going back to the way George Washington did it? Why not... read it in person!

You might think this a modest step.

It created an uproar.

"SENATORS FROWN ON WIL­SON'S VISIT, Reading is Compared to Speech From Throne," said The New York Times.

"BREAKS OLD PRECEDENT," said The Washington Post. "Washington is amazed."

Wilson wasn't deterred. He not only spoke; he started with a joke. "I am very glad...," he said, "to verify for myself the impression that the President of the United States is a person." The next day's Post headline made it clear he'd made the right decision.

"CONGRESS CHEERS GREET WILSON"

"Event free of pomp!"

With that one, somewhat petulant, attempt to reshape his image, Wilson reshaped the event that millions of Americans and millions more around the world will watch Jan. 25: Barack Obama delivering – in person – the State of the Union message, or what Washington insiders just call the SOTU.

It's already clear that it will be a different event this year. The horrifying assassination attempt on Congress-woman Gabrielle Giffords will mute some of the rhetoric on both sides of a bitterly divided Congress, and maybe do more. Still, the SOTU will go on, as it has for 221 years, with its format and purpose largely the same.

It is not the only such speech in the world. In addition to Britain, where the "Speech from the Throne" is now more than four centuries old, you can hear similar addresses in Russia, the Netherlands, Norway, and South Africa, among many other countries.

America's is the most celebrated, though. Even if Representative Giffords were sitting in her seat, as she has for the last four years, there's no question that Tuesday's event would attract enormous attention. But would it warrant all the interest? Or would it still just be what one critic wrote a few years back, a concoction of "outsized promises, tiresome applause ... and flabby rhetoric"?

As is often true in political life, the answer is: yes and no. Even as they acknowledge the spin, pomp, wearisome length, and arduous days and nights of writing speeches, those who have produced the constitutionally mandated SOTU believe the tradition has value.

"As rhetoric, the State of the Union usually fails. But it tells people where the president wants it [the nation] to go," says former George H.W. Bush aide Chriss Winston, who in 1989 became the first female presidential chief speechwriter.

"The Founders knew what they were doing. [It's] the best glimpse anyone other than insiders get into presidents' policy priorities and how they fit together," says David Kusnet, who four years later became chief speechwriter for Bill Clinton.

The State of the Union, Ms. Winston points out, "is almost never a memorable speech. Once in a while there's a memorable line or a memorable action."

But over 230 years, there has been a rich and colorful history of those lines (many included in Robert Schlesinger's story-filled account of presidential speeches, "White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters"). For example:

1822

A president worries that as Latin American countries win independence from Spain, other European countries might try to move in. James Monroe inserts this line into the president's Annual Message to Congress:

"American continents ... are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers."

His warning, soon known as the Monroe Doctrine, influenced American policy for more than a century, and, along with other corollaries asserting American power, still does.

1941

The president who changed the name of this speech from "Annual Message" to "State of the Union" sits at his desk in the Oval Office. He's with three speechwriters and a secretary accustomed to having FDR quoting a popular musical of the time, say, "Take a law," then dictate ideas.

Pearl Harbor is a year away. But Franklin Roose­velt knows war lies ahead. How can he both alert the country and use his upcoming SOTU to sell the idea? He leans back in his swivel chair, stares at the ceiling, then leans forward.

"Take a law," he says to his secretary. He outlines what in the speech will be his rationale for war: a world guaranteeing four freedoms – freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from want and fear.

1961

World War II's commanding general is now president. But he's no reflexive defender of the military. A young speechwriter named Ralph Williams comes up with a phrase for Ike's final address, and chief speechwriter Malcolm Moos includes it in the draft. "I think you've got something here," Eisenhower tells Moos.

Reporters almost entirely overlook the phrase when he delivers it. Then people begin to notice, especially those on the left who think Ike's words validate their views. Now, his most-quoted line is that speech warning about the dangers of America's "military-industrial complex."

Naturally, not all SOTUs have been so dramatic. Their importance lies not in what we'll remember for years but what we'll learn about next year. And while the Constitution only requires such a step from "time to time," with few exceptions, presidents have sensibly given us one each year (since Wilson), and they usually trek down to the Capitol to do it in person.

Just glancing at the newspapers from the day Wilson spoke, his large photo surrounded by ads for topcoats at $19.75 and men's shirts (three for $2), is to realize how much has changed since then.

First, technology has granted the speech larger and larger audiences. In 1923, Calvin Coolidge became the first president to deliver one heard on radio; in 1947, Truman delivered the first televised SOTU. George W. Bush's White House gets credit for both the first live web-cast (2002) and the first in high-definition (2004). Probably fewer than 1,000 people saw Wilson's speech. In 2010, 48 million watched Mr. Obama.

Just as media technology created a larger audience, so does a larger audience create much more intense media scrutiny. "It used to be, 'Over – let's get back to business,' " Winston says, sounding nostalgic. "Now it's endless pundits talking about length, content, policy. This year it will be dissected like no State of the Union ever."

Has all this changed the way the White House puts the SOTU together? Absolutely.

For one thing, since Wilson, presidents don't really write them anymore. His mediocre successor, Warren Harding, suffering a rare flash of insight, hired a speechwriter named Judson Welliver. Since then, presidential speeches and certainly every SOTU have been crafted by teams like those headed by Winston and Mr. Kusnet. In fact, there's an exclusive club, the Judson Welliver Society, made up only of speechwriters who wrote for presidents (I wrote for a vice president so I don't qualify).

But the changes in how the SOTU gets done go far beyond who actually writes it. Even in FDR's time, putting one together could be the job of four people – a string quartet. Now it's a group the size of the New York Philharmonic.

The best description of what it's like appears in "POTUS Speaks: Finding the Words That Defined the Clinton Presidency," Michael Waldman's remarkably spin-free account of the 1996 speech. He takes us through the first meetings in December, the polling, the memos gathered from well-known outsiders, meetings with cabinet secretaries and members of Congress – even what was billed as a "thinkers' dinner," a glittering, formal event in the White House Red Room where Mr. Clinton listened to guests.

Mr. Waldman describes staffers weighing in, and writers trying out "thematic paragraphs." And that was before his team wrote the first draft. Then Clinton reviewed it, ordered a second draft, then many more before Waldman finally could run through the Capitol corridors and insert a floppy disk into the teleprompter.

It's that kind of frenetic attention that makes the event like none other for writers. When asked what it was like, Jordan Tamagni, who worked on that 1996 speech, says, "Panic. Exhilaration. Pride. Relief. Exhaustion."

Of course, the White House focuses so intently on the SOTU for one reason, and it's not candor: SOTUs are partisan documents. "The State of the Union is unreal," wrote former White House speechwriter Ted Widmer in an op-ed a few years back, noting that both his old boss, Clinton, and George W. Bush had used a variant of "The State of the Union is strong" 11 years out of 12. "Our leaders have evaded frank discussion … through a variety of maneuvers," he added, calling the event an "exercise in forgettable dissembling."

He's mostly right. To study the anatomy of SOTUs is to see how essentially similar are these annual massages of reality. They almost always consider the same four questions – and provide the same four answers. What is the state of the Union? (Strong.) What have we accomplished? (A lot.) What's left to do? (Much, all reasonable.) Will we succeed? (Definitely!)

Because the SOTU is so nakedly one-sided, 1966 saw an attempt to restore some balance. That year, Sen. Everett Dirksen and minority leader Gerald Ford asked networks for a minority response. Now, the party out of power gets about 10 minutes to rebut.

"An almost impossible task," Winston says. "I feel sorry for whoever does it."

I know what she means. The year she was producing her boss's speech, I wrote the minority response for the Democrat, Lloyd Bentsen. I remember my distress seeing cameras cut from the glitter of the House chamber to a quiet room where, while millions of viewers clicked away or went to bed, Mr. Bentsen sat alone. It's impossible to compete with the president.

Beyond partisanship, of course, there's another problem for viewers intending to watch the whole SOTU. Much of the speech is – shhh! – dull.

It's common to complain that the "left to do" section contains so many proposals that even members of Congress nod off. That's true. Mr. Schlesinger tells us that in 1970 Nixon warned speechwriters not to give him a "laundry list," then complained later about the draft ("Why do we have all that dull stuff about agriculture?").

He kept it in for a reason, though. "Speechwriters want memorable rhetoric," Kusnet says. "But here's the point that will put me on probation with the Speechwriters Guild: Americans like laundry lists." He cites the proposal-stuffed Clinton speeches, which got "low marks from the pundits and high marks from the public."

Presidents know the public wants an upbeat, can-do president, full of solutions and confident we'll succeed. So, Kusnet says, almost every SOTU turns out to contain a laundry list of "proposals, problems – now called 'challenges' – and actions presidents claim to have taken to solve them."

This doesn't mean the speech isn't worth watching. If the structure doesn't vary, the proposals do. Ms. Tamagni points out that the speech actually serves as a "refining process of ideas and … policies."

Still, presidents know they can't be compelling with policy points alone. They need to inspire. And so in 1982, a dramatic event in Washington and a president who really wasn't a bad actor, set the stage for another SOTU change.

It was winter. An Air Florida 737 taking off from National Airport, unable to get enough height because of the icy weather, hit a bridge, then the slushy surface of the Potomac. It began to sink. Seventy-eight people would die, but some passengers made it into the frigid water. Rescuers threw ropes, but one woman lost her grip.

Suddenly, a young government worker dived in to help.

By that time the rescue was on TV. Watching it in his office: Reagan speechwriter Aram Bakshian. Mr. Bakshian went to work.

Later that month, as Reagan approached the ending to his State of the Union, he talked about how American heroism didn't end with the Founders. Then he pointed up to the gallery, where a woman in red and a nervous-looking young man in a brown suit sat next to Nancy Reagan.

"Just two weeks ago," Reagan said, in his husky, resonant voice, "we saw the heroism of one of our young government employees, Lenny Skutnik, who, when he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety."

Cabinet secretaries, generals, and every single member of the Senate and House jumped to their feet, applauding. The camera cut back to Mr. Skutnik and his wife and a smiling Mrs. Reagan leading the applause. For 40 seconds, it didn't stop. And as it began to die down, we saw Reagan, beaming, looking up, then flashing a graceful, perfectly timed final salute.

Manipulative? Maybe. But moving. (See for yourself: www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ronaldreagansou1982.htm.)

Since then, both parties have almost always followed this SOTU tradition: Seat heroes with the first lady, and inspire audiences at the end by mentioning them.

A spoken message. New media. Big­ger audiences. Elaborate production. Minority response. The "heroes" tradition. All make this a different event from the way it was a century ago.

And even after the minority response, the event isn't over. Out in the Rotunda, members circulate, armed with sound bites for reporters. On CNN, Fox, and MSNBC, teams of commentators, armed with their own sound bites, weigh in. Bloggers and fact checkers post online.

Can we expect anything different on Tuesday? Yes. Before the Giffords shooting, pundits were busy creating the drama that traditionally could get viewers to watch. They will still ask the big questions: What clues will we get about the White House strategy for 2012? Will Obama show he's learned his lesson? Will he give us the proposals – that laundry list! – calculated to win back independent voters who deserted the Democrats in November?

But while this year's Congress is even more bitterly divided than the year before – when we saw Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito shake his head and mouth, "Not true," after Obama dared disagree with one 5-to-4 high court decision – it's unlikely that we'll see anything so confrontational. Even after three weeks, the effects of the Jan. 8 shooting linger. Expect sadness, tributes to those who died, and to those who were heroic during the event.

That said, the SOTU is what it is: an augur of events ahead. "He's got to answer one basic question," Winston says. "Where are the jobs? What are you doing about the economy?"

Obama will do that.

And yet, he can't abandon other is­sues. Too many groups look for the one sentence about their obsessions. Sierra Club? What about EPA rules? Teachers? What's happening with school funding? Spending cuts? The audience has also become too global for a speech about just domestic problems.

Presidents may believe they control what to say at this event. In many ways, the event controls them. Expect the laundry list. And because for most people the speech itself isn't compelling (full disclosure: even speechwriters like me take refrigerator breaks), the question remains: Why do so many of us watch?

Yes, about two-thirds of American adults don't. But 48 million is a lot of people. What keeps them tuned in?

It can't be just the moments of conflict, which usually happen late if at all. Or the issues, most of which interest political junkies and lobbyists. Or patriotism, since the event highlights America's divisions. Then why?

We might find a clue in what made Wilson's idea such a smash. It was in part the novelty. "An innovation pleasing to all," The Post reported, adding that there had been another innovation – the presence of those new-fangled "moving picture cameras."

But beyond novelty was the attention reporters gave that wry – even professorlike – opening joke. The Post mentioned it in the subhead, set it off in a box, and quoted it in the article, including Wilson's follow-up line, that he was "a human being, trying to cooperate with other human beings."

A human being! With thoughts and feelings, just like us!

Politicians are human. Even presidents. In 1982, before the Skutnik speech, Reagan wrote in his diary, "I wonder if I'll ever get used to addressing the joint sessions of Cong? Somehow there's a thing about entering that chamber – goose bumps & a quiver."

Tuesday night, after the doors of the House chamber open and Obama walks grinning into a swarming clutch of handshakers and backslappers, we will see emotions on display throughout the room. We'll see members unable to conceal excitement when the president whispers in their ear, or during the speech, leaping up to cheer, or – even in this more somber moment – rolling their eyes in disbelief when he supports something they despise. We will see emotion from the prodigiously disciplined Obama: surprise when a quip goes over well, a flash of anger if someone boos, and sadness when he mentions the shooting.

And it may be that on this one occasion, the human drama will not only compel our attention but do it in a new way.

Wilson was exhilarated back in 1913. "I put one over on Teddy," he said to his wife. He had reminded people that the president was not, in his words, "a mere department of the government." He added a human dimension to the event for his listeners – and for us, just as, almost seven decades later, Reagan used Skutnik to make heroism human.

To remember Gabrielle Giffords on Tuesday night, as everyone in that chamber will, reminds us of the other side of heroism, the one harder to dramatize in the upbeat tone we ask of our politics: suffering.

Is it too much to ask that such a reminder change us? Probably. But since 1913, the changes in this event have made the State of the Union more worthwhile. If it's done with dignity, this reminder could, in a small way, make Tuesday night's speech worth even a little more.

Robert A. Lehrman, a novelist and former chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, teaches speechwriting at American University in Washington. He's the author of "The Political Speechwriter's Companion" and co-runs the blog, www.punditwire.com.

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