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Behind Every President, There Is a Speechwriter

PBS NewsHour correspondent Hari Sreenivasan spoke to presidential speechwriters Don Baer and Michael Gerson.

Cabinet Secretaries prowling the halls for clues, White House staffers crafting secret policy — it sounds straight out of the TV drama “The West Wing.” But it’s non-fiction, and has taken place in the run up to previous presidents’ State of the Union speeches. Ahead of President Barack Obama’s fourth State of the Union tonight, Hari Sreenivasan got a behind-the-scenes look at the process of writing such a speech from two former presidential speechwriters — Michael Gerson, who worked for President George W. Bush, and Don Baer, Communications Director for the Clinton White House.

So who decides exactly what goes and what doesn’t go into the State of the Union? It depends on the administration. According to Gerson, the agenda and language are mostly conceived of in the West Wing.

“We did get some lobbying, but the nature of modern government is that the executive office of the president, the people around the president, are really very much in charge,” said Gerson. “The Cabinets are not anymore; they are not contributing language. They are consulted by the domestic policy team at the White House in the lead up to a State of the Union address, but these things are driven from within the West Wing.”

For Baer, the Cabinet Secretaries didn’t relinquish a role in the speech so easily. “We had one or two who would actually prowl the halls during the time when the speech was being written,” Baer said. “[They were] sort of knocking from door to door to see where the speech was and to try to attach themselves to see whether or not they could have an impact on it.”

One common theme? Secrecy. When drafting the first State of the Union speech for President Clinton’s second term, Baer said the president asked him to leave an open space in the speech for Social Security. “He asked me specifically, leave it blank,” Baer said. “He knew what he wanted to say, but he didn’t want everyone else around the White House to know … because there were forces around who may or may not agree.”

Gerson’s best State of the Union experience involved unveiling a policy created in a secret process — Bush’s 2003 emergency plan for AIDS relief in Africa. “No one had any idea it was going to happen, it was a secret policy process that produced this, gained bipartisan support,” he said. “That was a State of the Union initiative that really could change things, and it just symbolized to me, that occasionally you can do something unexpected.”

Tune into the PBS NewsHour Tuesday night for special coverage of President Obama’s State of the Union address.

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