Presidential speechwriters remember State of the Union addresses

Sunday, January 24, 2010

As President Obama's State of the Union address approaches -- having dodged a confrontation with the television drama "Lost" -- the behind-the-scenes wordsmithing at the White House is in full gear. The following excerpts, drawn from interviews with former White House scribes and image-makers going back to Richard Nixon's days, offer a glimpse into how insiders plan for and remember the most public address their boss gives all year. Their comments suggest that viewers of "Lost," accustomed to cluttered plotlines and excessive casting, won't miss a beat watching the president's speech Wednesday night.

-- Russell L. Riley and Lisa Todorovich, Presidential Oral History Program, Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia

What does it accomplish?

Nixon speechwriter Lee Huebner: I think it's a schizophrenic speech. On the one hand, it's an administrative tool, it's a way of managing the government . . . of defining priorities, of getting input from every bureau and agency. . . . It all comes together and then gets mashed into an overlong, often very dull speech. . . .

On the other hand, it's a state occasion -- it's become a great ceremony. I think this happened mainly when Lyndon Johnson decided to move it from noon until evening . . . in 1965. And suddenly, instead of the kind of speech for the well-informed people who follow government closely, it became a speech for the general public. Presidents have felt the demand to make it an uplifting, ceremonial, rhetorical success, and these two objectives, I think, clash.

Reagan and George H.W. Bush speechwriter Clark Judge: We thought of the State of the Union address a little differently -- not so much as an administrative tool . . . but as part of the ongoing game with the Congress. . . .

Politicians are like market speculators. They're betting on the value of any one stock -- which is to say, issue or whatever -- six months off. And what you're giving Congress is a sense of how powerful your arguments are versus the opposition's arguments. One of the things you get out of a State of the Union address, assuming that you get a bounce in the polls, is you've signaled to all those on the other side, as well as to your own camp, that you have struck a public chord -- and that Congress had better be careful about how they oppose you in your legislative agenda. . . . If the president does it well, he will get that bump in the polls, and that'll be read by all these market speculators . . . that this is a stock that has some oomph in it.

Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson: I consider the State of the Union one of the central mysteries of modern American life. The president doesn't want to give it, Congress doesn't want to listen to it, and the networks don't want to cover it, and every year the damn thing happens all the same. Nobody would have invented it -- the founders sort of backed their way into it, and we're stuck with it . . . a kind of a permanent ritual.

How do you pick priorities?

Carter communications director Gerald Rafshoon: State of the Union speeches were just horrendous because everybody had to put something in. . . . I can remember [labor liaison] Landon Butler coming in the night before the State of the Union speech, and he said he'd looked at the text and he'd talked to [AFL-CIO head] Lane Kirkland, and Lane Kirkland said that the one thing that Mr. [George] Meany said on his death bed was: Would the president mention labor-law reform in the next State of the Union speech? And, God, the president just took labor-law reform and added it to a list with Mideast peace -- peace, prosperity and labor-law reform. We shouldn't have gone to Congress with a laundry list. We were always fighting to keep it thematic.

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