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.
(Page 6 of 6)
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?Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.