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For Speechwriting Team, Bush Is Editor in Chief

By Michael Abramowitz
Monday, January 28, 2008

Tonight's State of the Union address by President Bush had its origins in a conversation between the president and his small crew of speechwriters in late spring or early summer last year. As the speechwriters tell it, Bush called them into the Oval Office and told them he was interested in giving a speech about his governing philosophy.

The theme was "trust people to make wise decisions and empower them with better options," said Marc Thiessen, a onetime aide to former senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). "There never was really an opportunity to give it," he added, "and when the State of the Union came around, it just seemed to fit perfectly."

Thiessen, 41, is taking over as the chief White House speechwriter after being deputy to outgoing chief William McGurn, 49, a onetime editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal who plans to return to journalism. The other key collaborator was Christopher Michel, 26, who will become the new speechwriting deputy, having worked his way up from being an unpaid intern after graduating from Yale five years ago.

The three wordsmiths took a break Friday to offer a glimpse into how the presidential address was put together. They described an intensely collaborative process shaped heavily by the man McGurn sees not as the "commander in chief" but the "editor in chief."

"He calls up and he really drills down. He looks at transitions, he looks at everything," McGurn said of Bush. In the course of a long writing career, McGurn noted that he has been edited by the likes of William F. Buckley and late Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley, but Bush has clearly been "the most involved."

Planning for this year's speech began in earnest in December, and by Christmas the speechwriting shop had an outline ready for Bush. While McGurn headed off with Bush to the Middle East in early January, Thiessen and Michel came up with a draft and sent it out to the president.

Since Bush's return, the speechwriters have often met with him twice a day to go over drafts, while also getting input from the rest of the White House staff. Last week, Bush started practicing the speech in the White House movie theater.

McGurn declined to offer many details on the speech, though he suggested it will be divided between domestic and foreign policy. Other aides are already playing down expectations for major new initiatives, noting that it is unrealistic to think they could be achieved in the final year with a Congress hostile to some of Bush's big ideas.

But there is no sense of cynicism or lack of enthusiasm from the speechwriting trio. Thiessen noted that some of Ronald Reagan's big speeches -- for instance, his address on the power of freedom and democracy at Moscow State University -- came in his last year. "There's no sense that this is a final hurrah," he said of tonight's address. "This is the beginning of a very big year with a lot of opportunities to shape the debate."

One thing they are emphatic about is that they follow Bush's lead. "These are his speeches," McGurn said. "You don't hear us saying these are our words or something. Each time he goes over it, he makes changes and it becomes more and more his own. By the end, he's almost memorized it."

Another Side of Africa

On Friday, the White House released where Bush will be stopping when he visits Africa Feb. 15 to 21 for the second time in his presidency: Benin, Tanzania, Liberia, Rwanda and Ghana. They don't include some of the usual presidential stops, such as regional powerhouses South Africa and Nigeria, though Bush did visit those countries last time around.

The choices appear to reflect Bush's desire to spotlight some of Africa's less heralded success stories, such as the end of the civil war in Liberia and ousting of Charles Taylor in 2003. Bush will also talk about the increases in funding for anti-AIDS and malaria initiatives.

What's less clear is how Bush plans to address the remaining conflicts in Africa, such as in the Congo, Somalia and Sudan, where the president has long voiced frustration about his failure to bring peace to the troubled Darfur region. Aides expect Bush to praise Rwanda, which has recovered from its own genocide 14 years ago, for sending peacekeepers to Darfur.

Big news back home has often seemed to accompany presidential travel in Africa. When Bush visited Africa in 2003, the news was dominated by controversy over the faulty 16 words inserted into the State of the Union about false claims that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger. When President Bill Clinton was in Dakar, Senegal, in 1998, he heard that a federal judge had dropped the lawsuit by Paula Jones and was filmed banging a drum by a Fox News crew.

'Power of the Purse'

President Bush has been pushing Congress to rein in pork-barrel projects known as earmarks. So it seemed a bit curious that House Republicans who greeted the president at their annual retreat at the Greenbrier on Friday found an impassioned document on their chairs (next to the ballroom where Bush addressed them) making the case that some earmarks are okay.

"The 'power of the purse' rests solely with the Legislative Branch of government," said one paper. "We must not cede our constitutional authority to the Executive Branch."

The front page of the packet carried a campaign poster from the 1978 campaign of Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), strongly suggesting the hand of the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee. It's not apparent that Lewis's views carried the day, however; after a reportedly raucous debate, House GOP leaders sent a letter Friday to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) demanding a moratorium on earmarks.

Quote of the Week

"We've been in this foxhole now for seven years, and we're battle-tested, hardened veterans of dealing with the elite opinion in Washington, D.C."

-- President Bush in an interview with Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard

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