WASHINGTON — The “Speech” has been written, rewritten and rehearsed to exhaustion in preparation of President Obama’s fifth State of the Union address Tuesday night.
What does it take? White House speechwriters from past administrations weighed in on the process leading up to a presidential speech at the think tank Bipartisan Policy Center panel Tuesday, offering anecdotes and reliving struggles they overcame when faced with crafting the president’s words.
Here are some of the lessons they learned:
The writers are not in complete control.
Don Baer, former speechwriter for Bill Clinton:
“There’s a myth that speechwriters are the ones that go into a room and come out with this fully-formed text. We’re at best stewards for a process. A state of the union is both a mission statement and the setting out of an agenda for an entire presidency and an entire government at least for the year ahead. As such, the idea that it would a handful of speechwriters working without the influence from people across the government is impossible. It’s going to be a massive group project.”
Jeff Shesol, former speechwriter for Bill Clinton
“There are all sorts of other people that are frankly more important than you are who are involved in this process from the president to the chief of staff, but ultimately, your role is to bring order out of chaos.”
The president is a helpful resource.
Adam Frankel, former speechwriter for Barack Obama
“It helps that the president was a better writer than any of us and understood what it is to be a writer and understands the process. There was a time when we were working on the convention speech in 2008 when we had writer’s block. And we had hit a wall and the president said, ‘Reflect on the moment and say something that feels true,’ which was advice that helped us get through that.”
You cannot reinvent the State of the Union speech.
“ When I had just gotten to the White House and I was full of what I thought were really fresh ideas, I wrote a memo arguing for a tightly thematic approach to the State of the Union address, to finally reject the laundry list, to make an argument for something. I was told essentially, ‘You’re adorable,’ and then I got to work like everybody else on the laundry list.”
You do not know better than the president.
“Any sort of arrogance that may creep in at any time is usually muted by acts that cause humility. I remember President Clinton was going to give a very big, important education speech with thousands of people there. I worked really hard on the alliteration in the last part of the speech. I wanted it to be beautiful and really great and inviting everything you could imagine about the power of education and the American dream. And President Clinton went up there and was giving a great speech. The crowd was loving him. He got to the end and he just threw out three words really strongly: ‘Education, education, education!’ and that was the end of his speech. I turned to the guy next to me and said, ‘I wrote the middle word.’”
“There are many times when you see President Obama interact with the text as he’s reading it. You would get the sense that he was talking to the speechwriter when he goes off script and says things like, ‘But you know, the argument doesn’t really end there, does it?’ And you would think, ‘Okay, I should have made that point.’”
John McConnel, former speechwriter for George W. Bush
“I remember the frustration on working on education speeches for President Bush because we never really seemed to get it quite right and he would spend a lot of time changing our speeches. At one point, I suggested we transcribe the last education speech the president gave, and clean it up, add some new data and add some pertinent local information. And we did. The word came back that he loved it. We finally hit the mark.”