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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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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.

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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.

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