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Former Speechwriters Describe State of Union Drafting Process

January 23, 2007 at 6:45 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: President Bush heads into his sixth State of the Union address this evening with a stiff political wind in his face. His job approval rating is the lowest it’s been for any of his previous speeches: 33 percent approval, in today’s Washington Post-ABC poll.

His plan to increase troop levels in Iraq has been met with skepticism by the public and criticism from the majority Democrats and a growing number of Republicans in Congress. So tonight Mr. Bush will also try to turn the spotlight on domestic issues, like health care, energy efficiency, and fiscal restraint.

The president’s aides say the public wants action on these issues, and so should Democrats. Here’s White House Spokesman Tony Snow.

TONY SNOW, White House Press Secretary: George W. Bush is a president that’s not somebody who is going to cease to be bold because there has been — because right now people are concerned about the progress of the war.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Thank you very much.

RAY SUAREZ: This evening will be a far cry from the atmosphere surrounding the president’s first State of the Union in January 2002, just four months after the 9/11 attacks. Then, President Bush had a majority of the Congress and the American people behind him.

GEORGE W. BUSH: As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers. Yet the state of our union has never been stronger.

RAY SUAREZ: However, by last year’s address, the political environment had changed dramatically. The Iraq insurgency was raging, and the majority of American were demanding a change in military strategy, while Republican support for the most part remained loyal and polite.

GEORGE W. BUSH: As we make progress on the ground and Iraqi forces increasingly take the lead, we should be able to further decrease our troop levels. But those decisions will be made by our military commanders, not by politicians in Washington, D.C.

RAY SUAREZ: Tonight, when the president’s discussing health care, immigration or energy, it will be interesting to watch how often one side, the other side, or both sides of the chamber stands to signal its approval.

So how does the president craft an effective message for this evening? For that, we’re joined by Clark Judge, former speechwriter for both the president and vice president during the Reagan administration. He’s now the managing director of the White House Writers Group consulting firm.

And Michael Waldman, he served as director of speechwriting for President Clinton and currently is the executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law .

Clark Judge, let’s go back to your White House, where a couple of hours before the State of the Union address. Are you done? Are you finished?

CLARK JUDGE, Former Reagan Speechwriter: Finished several days earlier. The president’s been rehearsing. He may have tweaked things himself, may have made some minor modifications. But at this point, it’s rehearsal, get it right, relax, and get ready to put on a good show.

RAY SUAREZ: And as the speechwriter, you’re not part of that part of it?

CLARK JUDGE: You may or may not be. It depends on the year; it depends on the president. But the important thing is for him to get in the zone and be ready to put on a good show for — to be as good as his text.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Waldman, here we are, oh, two-and-a-half hours before the sergeant-at-arms welcomes the president to the chamber. Are you done?

MICHAEL WALDMAN, Former Clinton Speechwriter: Well, under President Clinton, it might be a somewhat different rhythm. He would be working on the speech, rehearsing and rewriting from the podium up until the day of, and, you know, asking questions, and as most presidents do, using these speeches to probe his own government and find out the political direction and try to set a stance. So he was working until the last minute.

RAY SUAREZ: Still you’re working pretty much until he gets up to that lectern?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: Pretty close.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Michael Waldman, depending on the prevailing political environment, what’s happening in the world outside that congressional chamber, is there more or less pressure on the speechwriter to turn the speech itself into an event, perhaps a momentum-changing event?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: Well, these speeches have taken on a very great significance, because they are, in this day and age, just about the only time that a president gets to talk directly to the country at any length about policy. And there is a thirst that citizens have to hear directly from their leader, their leaders, and not just hear it all sliced and diced by the media.

Now, Bill Clinton had a Congress controlled by the other party for most of his presidency. There was often a great deal of tension and drama, but I can’t remember too many times where there was such a sharp split between the Congress and Bill Clinton, the president, on an issue as big as Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: How about you, Clark Judge, did it feel different? Was the job and the assignment different in years when things perhaps were going tough, maybe Reagan’s speech right after Iran-Contra broke, that kind of thing?

CLARK JUDGE: Well, yes, sure. After Iran-Contra, it was a difficult State of the Union address. The next year, it was much easier.

But to look at tonight’s address in that context, having a Congress of the other party in a time when public opinion is questioning the president, both President Clinton, after the Lewinsky affair broke, and President Reagan, after the Iran-Contra affair broke, faced those kinds of difficult State of the Union addresses, just as President Bush does now.

In each case, in President Reagan’s case and in President Clinton’s case, they overcame those challenges. They worked with the Congress once that was behind them, and they had successful final years to their presidency.

The same opportunity is present for President Bush. Things go well in Iraq, that’s going to count, obviously, very big. Also, the programs that the White House has put out are all areas where you can imagine that Republicans and the Democrats and the White House working together in some combinations, in putting through legislation.

And if we got anything besides Iraq out of the 2006 election, it was that the public is fed up with partisanship. They want the various branches of government and the parties to work together to address serious issues.

The Democratic leadership in Congress has got that message; the Republican leadership in Congress has got that message. So we’re in a position where, just as with President Clinton and President Reagan, we could see a very productive final two years for President Bush.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Waldman, was setting those themes in place in the last couple of Clinton speeches part of the assignment for the speechwriter?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: Oh, sure. You really work for months at a time, and you try to find some overarching themes and some broad public arguments that will both prevail with the public and to try to prevail, as Clark said, with the Congress and find ways to work with the Congress.

And I do agree that there will be times we’ll hear tonight about, say, immigration, an issue where President Bush and the Democrats in Congress have more in common, in many respects, than the president and the Republicans.

But I differ with Clark in one significant degree. Neither President Reagan nor President Clinton had an issue as divisive as Iraq is right now.

This past election, I would say, was a mandate, among other things, but most prominently on the war and on the president’s conduct of it, and you don’t hear a cry from the public as clear as that in our system. You’ve got a Congress taking one view; you’ve got the foreign policy establishment now, in the form of the Baker-Hamilton commission, sharing that view. The public shares that view.

And normally, the way Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan and other presidents dealt with a newly elected opposition Congress, was they found a way to sort of tact toward that Congress. And with the speech last week calling for an escalation in Iraq, President Bush, in effect, went the other way.

And I can’t imagine that our friends who are now the White House speechwriters in this administration expected the president’s political support to crumble the way it has since their first speech. So they have a real challenge ahead of them.

John Warner and an audience of John Warners don’t make it any easier for President Bush.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael mentioned just now that he was working on it for months. How is the content assembled? Who says what’s in that speech, Clark Judge?

CLARK JUDGE: Well, it starts with an identification of key areas that a president and his senior advisers want to hit. Then the speechwriters interview senior staff, they interview support staff within the White House on each of those areas, may even speak to members of the cabinet and members of the sub-cabinet, and then produce a draft.

Sometimes it’s one writer; sometimes it’s the whole staff working on different parts. Then it goes into staffing, where the differences among staff have to be worked out.

And one of the roles of speechwriting, one of the roles not often appreciated, is as mediator and negotiator, among all of these factions in the government, that sometimes will edit in absolutely diametrically opposed ways.

When all of that’s worked out, those things that can’t get worked out get appealed to the senior staff, to the president, really, who is responsible for the final draft. Michael mentioned that President Clinton was often rewriting right up until the end.

Each White House does things differently. President Reagan was more disciplined and had more of a process in place, so that wasn’t part of our routine. President Bush does a lot of editing himself but is also more in the Reagan mold, in terms of discipline, versus the Clinton mold, in terms of a lot of last-minute work by the president himself.

But the one thing I’d like to say is…

RAY SUAREZ: Quickly, please.

CLARK JUDGE: … is just that the president has right now a period of six to nine months to prove himself. That’s what he got from the last speech, and that’s what I believe he’ll confirm tonight.

Senator Warner, other senators, are skeptical, but they’re ready to give him that time. How he performs in that time will have everything to do with the success, ultimately, as we look back of this speech, as well as of this administration.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Waldman, in recent decades, the speeches have been shot through with passages that brings one audience or another, some subset of the crowd in that room, to its feet. Do you know what those are when you’re writing them or have there been moments where people jump to their feet, and you’re watching on TV thinking, “Gee, I didn’t think they were going to do that”?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: Oh, sure. It’s quite something to watch the president play to the audience in the way, like a giant Wurlitzer organ. You know which parts are going to appeal to Democrats, which will appeal to Republicans, which will be things that appeal to both parties. And I wouldn’t be surprised if you hear a lot of those, especially early on, to try to bring people together in a note of solidarity.

But one of the things that happens is people watch the speaker of the House. She is now the face of the Democratic Party. And just as Newt Gingrich was standing by President Clinton or Tip O’Neill was standing behind President Reagan, she will register her party’s views by whether she applauds or not or whether she smiles or not. And you’ll see a lot of Democrats in Congress watching her for the cues.

And when, in 1998, one of the speeches I had the chance to work on, President Clinton in the middle of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, one week into it, there was the brand-new budget surplus in the Congress.

The Republicans in Congress wanted, in effect, we believe, to spend it on a tax cut. And President Clinton said, “Well, I have a simple forward answer. We should save Social Security first.” And when both parties stood up to applaud, at that moment a trillion dollars shifted in the budget from the column marked “tax cuts” to the column marked “Social Security,” because body language matters.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Waldman, we’re going to have to end it there. Thank you very much. And, Clark Judge, thank you.

CLARK JUDGE: Thank you, Ray.