Cooking Up the Word Stew
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 19, 1999; Page A6
Six years into the Clinton presidency, speechwriter Michael Waldman knows better than to fall in love with a first draft. More than once he has walked into the Oval Office, proud of what he thought was a nicely polished piece of prose, only to have the effort dismissed with a familiar, cutting phrase.
"Words, words, words," President Clinton will say wearily, his way of signaling that a speech draft is too heavy on rhetoric and light on substance.
Waldman knows all about words. Just a week ago, the State of the Union draft that he had placed before Clinton contained some 10,000 of them enough to give two separate hour-long speeches.
By this evening, when Clinton arrives at the Capitol to speak to Congress and the nation, those words will have been pumped up, whittled down, and haggled over in dozens of White House meetings, involving dozens of inside and outside advisers. As Clinton's chief speechwriter, the affable Waldman is head chef of a stew that has what seems like an infinite number of cooks, served to a customer with his own demanding tastes.
The result will be a State of the Union address that even many congressional allies of Clinton thought would be simply too strange to give in the current climate, when the Senate is debating whether to evict him from office.
But White House officials hope the speech will be a reminder of why most people say they want Clinton to stay right where he is promoting the poll-tested, centrist agenda that has helped him remain popular despite personal scandal.
The speech will also serve notice, the White House promises, that Clinton is not yet ready to begin the wind-down phase of his presidency.
"Typically, a State of the Union in the seventh year of an administration would be elegiac, backward-looking, wistful," said Waldman, 38, one of the handful of White House aides who have been with Clinton since the 1992 campaign. "That is not this president's temperament. This speech is full of new initiatives, and is designed to set the agenda that's the goal."
Will it seem weird to hear the State of the Union being delivered by the first president to be put on trial in 131 years? Indeed it might, agree some senior White House officials. Early this month, they had considered heeding the advice of some lawmakers that Clinton delay his speech until after the impeachment trial was over.
But when it became clear that the trial could last weeks or months longer, Clinton and his advisers decided to hold on to what they consider his best opportunity all year to command a national audience. If some congressional Republicans are uncomfortable with the convergence of circumstances, said one senior White House official, that's their problem. For his part, Clinton as of yesterday did not plan to make even an oblique reference to his impeachment drama, on the theory that even a passing mention would give reporters an excuse to focus on that instead of the policy agenda.
Tonight won't be the first time that a Clinton State of the Union speech has taken place in a bizarre political context. A year ago, the allegations about Clinton's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky were only a week old when he strode to the podium. A year before that, Clinton's speech was just underway when word broke that the jury had reached a verdict in the O.J. Simpson civil trial. (Television networks scrolled updates across the bottom of the screen.)
And in 1995, a president whose party had just lost control of Congress could not decide which speech to deliver the one his White House staff helped assemble, or another one that he had worked on secretly with then-adviser Dick Morris. In the end, Clinton gave both, in a speech that lasted nearly an hour and a half.
That speech set a pattern that has become familiar in recent years. Political pundits tend to bad-mouth Clinton's State of the Union speeches; polls show the wider public loves them. And so the White House has settled on a practiced formula: Collect a wealth of policy ideas from across the government. Have presidential pollster Mark Penn test the ideas with the public. Then lay them out rapid-fire before a television audience that last year was 53 million.
For this administration, even more than predecessors, the State of the Union has also served as an organizing tool, a process in which the White House both sharpens the policy agenda Clinton will pursue for the year and fashions the rhetorical themes needed to sell it.
For the past three years, Waldman a lawyer and former Ralph Nader protege has been in charge of the process, an annual exercise in controlled chaos. That is a clear improvement over the early days of the administration, when the production of major Clinton speeches often became an exercise in uncontrolled chaos.
These days, there are late nights but no presidential all-nighters. There aren't likely to be anything more than minor revisions today.
The popular image of a White House speechwriter is of an aide working in tortured solitude, crafting soaring cadences for the president to deliver. The reality is that Waldman's job is more like that of a convention floor manager than a lonely poet.
He must keep in touch with the multiple constituencies within the White House and federal agencies, all filled with people demanding attention for their policy initiatives. He must accommodate the involvement of the many friends, academics and outside political advisers who the president and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton invite to participate in providing ideas and rhetoric for the speech.
"If you want to be chief speechwriter you have to check your ego at the door," said national economic adviser Gene Sperling. "Michael is the one person who is responsible for everything ultimately coming together, and he has to be completely non-threathened by a world in which all sorts of people are coming in with last-minute suggestions and changes."
The process began some four months ago when Waldman began reading past speeches and assembling ideas with Sperling and chief domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed. In early December, Waldman sat with Clinton aboard Air Force One on the way back from Rhode Island and went over a three-page outline. After that, he tried a first draft, knowing full well it might bear only passing resemblance to the final product. He errs on the side of inclusion, knowing major cuts will be needed.
He likened it to musicians laying down the "rhythm track" for a recording; the melody will come later. So, too, will the chorus of advice. Following his pattern of recent years, Clinton invited more than a dozen scholars to submit ideas, including historian Alan Brinkley, economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett and African American studies professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Theodore C. Sorensen, a speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy, has offered ideas. And consultant Robert Shrum, who regularly makes suggestions for Clinton speeches, has joined in. And for Clinton's rehearsals in the White House theater this weekend, a host of former top Clinton aides dropped by, including former chief of staff Erskine B. Bowles, former senior adviser Rahm Emanuel and former communications director Donald A. Baer.
Waldman says digesting and reacting to the cross-current of ideas is one way Clinton puts his personal imprint on the speech. "By the end, he's dictated or written the bulk of it," said Waldman.
For three hours last Thursday, Clinton sat in the Oval Office with glasses on, chewing a granola bagel, and marking up the speech with senior aides. Dog Buddy walked in and out of the session.
At times this weekend, there were two dozen or more people with drafts in hand huddled in the theater for practice sessions. But aides said there was also a secret draft, containing the most newsworthy passages, that was reserved for only a half-dozen or so senior officials. This group joined Clinton for nearly four hours in the theater yesterday.
Waldman's strength as a writer is clarity and factual argumentation, rather than dazzling phrase-making, say present and former White House colleagues. It is a style in keeping with his boss a fluent and natural public speaker who nonetheless has produced relatively few signature phrases. "If you give him a speech that reads like it's written for Winston Churchill or is in some kind of bombastic style, he won't read it," he said.
But some Clinton supporters say the president's all-inclusive style no fault of Waldman can create "cafeteria-style" speeches with lots of small ideas but no echoing large one. "What's missing is the rhetorical architecture that makes a speech for the ages," said Rutgers University professor Benjamin Barber, who often shares suggestions with the White House.
The pace of life with Clinton takes a personal toll. Waldman wears hand braces to help control tendinitis, a symptom of so much time at the keyboard. On Saturday he sipped a quadruple espresso to stay alert. And his wife, Justice Department official Elizabeth Fine, and their three young children simply went away for the weekend, knowing he would not be around.
In the meantime, he has fallen out of favor with old associates. Nader called his old protege a "deflated tire" who does not fight hard enough in the White House to advance his old principles on fair trade or campaign finance. Waldman says Nader always is disappointed with former aides in government.
Waldman expects to be leaving his White House job this year, friends say. But he said recent days have reminded him of the satisfactions of being at ground zero for a major address. "To sit for hours with the president as he sits for hours with the top minds, talking about policy and politics and strategy," he said, "is quite something."
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