As President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address approaches tonight, 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 the most public address their boss gives all year:
What does it accomplish?
Lee Huebner, Richard Nixon speechwriter:
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.
Clark Judge, Reagan and George H.W. Bush speechwriter:
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.
How do you pick priorities?
Peter Robinson, Reagan speechwriter:
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 ... backed their way into it, and we’re stuck with it.
Gerald Rafshoon, Carter communications director:
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 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? 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 were always fighting to keep it thematic.
Aram Bakshian, Reagan speechwriter:
There is always ... (an) attempt by everybody to get into the State of the Union; every little crappy agency wants their stuff, their agenda, included. You have to resist this pressure.
Terry Edmonds, Clinton speechwriter:
In the Clinton White House, writing for him was excruciatingly collaborative — with him being the No. 1 collaborator, of course. ... President Clinton was also a person who loved ideas and collecting ideas from all sorts of sources. ... One of the first things he would do would to be to sort of canvas the great thinkers in the country and ask, "If there is one thing you want to see in the State of the Union, what would it be?"... And we could collect those. Not many of them made it in, but it was a great process to get his mind thinking.
Why the visitors’ gallery?
Aram Bakshian, Reagan speechwriter:
I was sitting there (in January 1982) thinking about the State of the Union when the Air Florida crash hit, and I saw that thing happen live on TV. At that point, as soon as the name (of the man who dove into the Potomac River to save a survivor) was available — and we made sure he didn’t have a drug record or anything, or was an illegal alien or something — I wrote Lenny Skutnik into the finale. I wrote the passage, and that created the hero-in-the-gallery ploy, which unfortunately has been milked to death since and overdone. I almost regret it.
Russell Riley and Lisa Todorovich are scholars with the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs.