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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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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."

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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.


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