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State of Union: A speech its writers love to hate

WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama stands before Congress and the nation Tuesday night, there will be little hint of the cram-it-in, squeeze-it-out, please-put-it-back dynamic that went into the making of his State of the Union address.

In the days and weeks before every State of the Union, Cabinet members, policy advocates and others suddenly find reasons to visit the speechwriting team's modest outpost in the White House basement, hoping for that all-important mention in the biggest presidential speech of the year.

"Nobody wants to get left out," said Bruce Reed, a veteran of both the Obama and Clinton White Houses who recently left government.

It's one reason the State of the Union is the address that presidential speechwriters love to hate.

One of George W. Bush's speechwriters once called this final stretch the "seven-day death march."

"It's not a nice, neat process, I can tell you that," said Jon Favreau, who led Obama's speechwriting team for more than four years before leaving government a year ago.

This year, with just days left before the big speech, Obama's chief speechwriter, Cody Keenan, already has gotten plenty of helpful (and not-so-helpful) advice.

He's sat through face-to-face meetings with nearly every Cabinet member and given all of them his email address.

"For that, he is saintly," Favreau said.

Piety's nice. But the ability to say no is essential.

For every sentence that's in the speech, there are a dozen pages that won't make the cut, said Bill McGurn, Bush's chief speechwriter for three years.

"This is the opportunity for every apparatchik in government to have their pet cause or the issue they're working on promoted by the president on national TV," he said. "They get disappointed if they only get a sentence, but it's better than not getting a sentence."

Bush himself was wary of the dreaded "cram-in" — that sentence that just seemed to stick out because someone insisted on wedging in a mention of this or that.

"I used to joke that I was installing a round keyboard in my office so everyone could type at once," said Michael Waldman, President Bill Clinton's chief speechwriter from 1995 to 1999.

For Obama's State of the Union, Favreau had a "pay-as-you-go" policy: For every word someone wanted to add to a draft, they had to find something else to cut.

He said Obama gives the speechwriting team plenty of leeway to push back against clutter by saying, "We're not going to do this just because someone random said that they need to get it in."

But if someone won't back down, the dispute may go up the chain of command to Obama.

With the final 72 hours of back-and-forth before the speech typically the most frantic time, Keenan's White House colleagues are helping him gird for the final stretch.

One made him energy cookies and another gave him an industrial-sized Keurig machine that is said to sound like a jackhammer when coffee's brewing.

Obama, like presidents past, starts each year vowing to keep the speech from turning into a laundry list. He's big on finding an organizing theme, such as "Built to Last" in 2012 or "Winning the Future" in 2011. (Sarah Palin called the latter a "WTF" moment.)

But every president, including Obama, inevitably succumbs to the pressure to cover a multitude of bases, lest he be criticized for slighting something important.

"Usually it begins pretty coherently for the first 10 to 15 minutes," said Jeff Sheshol, a former Clinton speechwriter. "But then it starts to devolve a little bit into a list of this, that and the other thing that all have to be mentioned."

Work on Obama's State of the Union begins in the fall, long before the speechwriters start filling up blank sheets of paper.

Cabinet members and leading policy people begin pulling together ideas for the coming year. It's not unusual for the White House to solicit fresh ideas from outsiders, including historians and academics. There's an early meeting with Obama, where the president lays out his thoughts on a theme and his main policy preferences.

Most ideas from outside the White House "die on the cutting room floor long before the speechwriter has to translate them into English," Reed said.

Some fail to find a friend within the White House, others are too contentious on Capitol Hill, still more sound great but there's no money to pay for them.

Sometimes the idea is fine; there's just not enough time to talk about it.

This year, coordination of the policy side of the speech has been a group effort involving Natalie Quillian, a senior adviser to chief of staff Denis McDonough who flitted between dozens of meetings right up until ducking out to have a baby earlier this month, as well as Obama aides Dan Pfeiffer and David Simas.

At some point, though, the speechwriters "just stop waiting for every policy decision to be made and start writing, because it can take right up until the end" to settle every policy question, said Favreau.

When Obama gets a first draft, he'll avoid line editing and focus on logic and structure. "It's the lawyer in him," said Favreau. The president also will make sure the speech has a strong theme, and make suggestions on policies to be emphasized more or played down.

Once the president has a draft he likes — "in the ballpark," in Obama's parlance — he'll edit to improve its rhythm, delete the expendable, insert blocks of copy and craft catchy lines.

He does it all in longhand, with arrows, inserts and tidy cursive comments in the margins.

"He's obviously a writer himself," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. "And on speeches like this, he really is the chief speechwriter."

For all of the effort that goes into the speech, its writers know these addresses tend to be little remembered and seldom quoted.

"It is, and always has been, at its best an eloquent laundry list," said Waldman. "But even a laundry list can be powerful if a president is bold."

State of Union: A speech its writers love to hate 01/24/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 24, 2014 6:05pm]
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