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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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.