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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.

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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"?

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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.

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