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State of the Union: Behind the Scenes and Expectations

Amusing and interesting behind the scenes look at the cobbling together of presidential speeches from former Bush deputy director of speechwriting Matthew Scully:

    When we began last year’s effort, my colleague Mike Gerson had taken to calling it our “seven-day death march.”

    Mike Gerson and another senior writer, John McConnell, have together given us some of the most memorable words of the Bush presidency, including their recent collaboration on the second inaugural address. The setting from which these lofty words issued, however, is not quite as one might imagine. The work was done mostly in narrow quarters in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House. With heaps of coffee-stained papers strewn about, a few days’ worth of crumbs and other food scraps accumulating, and an unobstructed view of the White House trash bins, the place brought to mind, as John McConnell remarked, “the back room of a cheap restaurant.”

    Locked away in this hovel, the team produced three State of the Union speeches, encountering problems (“confronting challenges,” in the parlance of these addresses) familiar to all who had come before us.

    The first great challenge of a State of the Union address is common to every annual presidential ritual – to freshen it up. Almost as dreaded as drafting a State of the Union, for example, are those yearly chores like writing remarks for the St. Patrick’s Day visit by the prime minister of Ireland. How many different ways can you accept a bowl of shamrocks, or celebrate the sterling qualities of the noble Irish people?

Personally, I would consult the Duke.

    as every presidential speechwriter knows, the gravest State of the Union challenge comes when drafts of the address are circulated for editing by the members of the White House senior staff and the cabinet. One must then try to accommodate the various criticisms and manias of the editors.

    ….Our speechwriting collaboration allowed for little writer’s vanity – no ownership of lines or clinging to cherished phrases. The same, alas, could not always be said of the resident editors, who were constantly pressing upon us certain words or chunks of verbiage that “he has to say.” Close inspection usually revealed these inserts to be puffy and meaningless, ringing pledges to “develop and implement” some remote project, or to “foster and encourage” some vague objective or “spirit.”

    ….Often the best edits came in the family theater, from the president himself as he read the text aloud. It was there, with a presidential “take it out,” that the joint meeting speech after 9/11 was spared a ghastly intrusion that began, “This crisis found us making progress on many fronts, from education to energy policy.”

    My favorite edit from last year’s State of the Union involved Ashley Pearson, a 10-year-old girl in Rhode Island who had written a lovely letter to the president asking that he please “tell me what I can do to save our country.” This simple note called for a simple and gracious response, and one was dictated by the president himself, telling Ashley to be good to her mom and dad, and to be sure to thank any soldiers she might meet.

    This was not enough for one editor, whose redline copy of the speech exhorted the girl to write to Afghan children, do volunteer work, join the Peace Corps, become a teacher. In all we counted eight great tasks – a life-plan of unending service for poor little Ashley.

    Doubtless my former colleagues have been through similar travails this year. But it is also a safe guess that the product will have the same tone of simplicity, understatement and manful directness that comes through in all the president’s finer remarks. As his writers will attest, those qualities can be brought out with high-sounding words, but they must first be present in the man himself. Only he can make a speech great in the hearing. And it certainly helps tonight that events in Iraq have now spoken so convincingly for themselves. [NY Times]

Yes, quite fortunate, that.

The Note, from ABC News, has a fun list of things to look for during the SOTU address tonight:

    Watch to see which Democrats get a presidential pat (or hug) on the way in. (If any . . .)

    Watch to see if the White House puts anything in the speech that can compete with Social Security for lede status.

    See if the axis of evil tonight (at least implicitly) will be “the status quo,” “the do-nothings,” and Howard Dean. (Just kidding.)

    Tally applause if you want. (But you will lose count during the Iraq election section.)

    Watch how often the pool director chooses Sen. Clinton as the reaction cut-away.

    Look for the grudging Charlie Rangel-style forced clapping by some. (That is when the hands say “clap” but the eyes say “shrug.”)

    Determine which lines are for “the room,” which lines are for the citizenry watching on TV, and which for the world audience.

    Strain to see who is in the First Lady’s box besides the pre-announced Iraqis.

The new ABC News/Washington Post poll says President Bush will begin his address tonight (9pm ET) with a 50 percent job approval rating: 87 percent of Republicans approve, 14 percent of Democrats agree.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will deliver the Democratic response.

Here’s a rundown from the Washington Post on the presumed contents of the speech:

    In a briefing for reporters, a senior administration official, who declined to speak on the record, said Bush’s televised address to a joint session of Congress will be divided evenly between domestic policy and foreign affairs. On the domestic front, the president plans to issue a call for fiscal discipline in preparation for an extremely tight federal budget.

    The budget, to be announced Monday, will propose a virtual freeze in discretionary spending unrelated to defense or homeland security, as part of Bush’s plan to cut the deficit in half by 2009 from a 2004 deficit of $521 billion

    ….Bush also plans to rejoin the Social Security debate by highlighting the system’s long-term fiscal problems and explaining why allowing workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into private accounts would contribute to a “permanent fix” for the program. “He will flesh out new details and how he views the personal retirement accounts will work,” the official said. “He will talk about why, as I said, it’s necessary that we need to permanently fix the system.”

    ….White House officials describe the impending presidential speech as “a blueprint” to complement the lofty ideals Bush articulated in his Jan. 20 inaugural address. In that speech, he touted his vision of an ownership society and his long-term goal of ending tyranny worldwide.

    First lady Laura Bush said on NBC’s “Today” show that she will be flanked by a voter from Afghanistan and another from Iraq as she listens to the president’s speech from the House gallery.

    ….Presidential speechwriters have gone through 17 drafts of the address, which Bush practiced twice yesterday, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. As he prepared for the speech, Bush continued to reach out to foreign leaders in hopes of enlisting more assistance in Iraq following Sunday’s elections. He called Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mexican President Vicente Fox and the leaders of NATO and the European Union in the third day of phone conversations with international leaders.

    White House officials have little hope of persuading European skeptics to contribute troops to U.S.-led combat missions in Iraq but are exploring whether they can solicit more international aid in terms of reconstruction, finances and training and equipping Iraqi security forces.

About Eric Olsen

  • http://emeraldcitycomments.blogspot.com/ Roy Smith

    What may be particularly interesting is how enthusiastic a response social security reform gets from the President’s own party. Some of the ideas being circulated have drawn quite a bit of criticism from leading Republicans, let alone Democrats and the general public.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Roy, I agree, I don’t think he has sold the need for it yet – I guess he’ll try to do that tonight

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    Thorough exploration here, Eric – I particularly liked the reference to the amended version of the President’s simple response to the child who asked what she should do to help her country.

    I don’t expect much in the way of specific strategy in the SOTU tonight – Bush got slammed for doing that last year, and this year he has so much more to lay out in wider terms…

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks DrPat, the behind the scenes stuff is usually fun and can be revealing and humanizing. I think he’s trying to walk the kine between general and specific tonight, and between celebrating the Iraqi election without crowing a la declaring victory after the invasion, only a decade or so early