Drama in the West Wing

The State of the Union has contained some of the most memorable lines any president has ever uttered.

There was Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1942, warning of "a hard war, a long war." There was John F. Kennedy in 1961: "The hopes of all mankind rest upon us." George Herbert Walker Bush introduced his "thousand points of light" in 1991. And in 2002, George W. Bush declared Iraq, Iran and North Korea "an axis of evil."

The State of the Union has been given every year since George Washington delivered the first in 1790. But for the 112 years following 1801, during Thomas Jefferson's term in office, it was simply written on paper. Jefferson found the address to the nation too "monarchical" — the kind of speech a king gives. And that, of course, is exactly why modern presidents like it.

Each year, presidents offer a litany of promises. Some — such as Kennedy's pledge to be "first on the moon" in 1962 — were met.

Many were not. Among them were Richard Nixon in 1974 saying, "I have no intention, whatever, of ever walking away from the job that the people elected me to do," and Lyndon Johnson's declaration of "unconditional war on poverty in America."

Citing the speech in his own 1988 State of the Union, Ronald Reagan quipped, "poverty won."

Bush and his team of three speech writers have been honing this year's State of the Union address — his last — since December. Much of it was written in a speech writer's office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House.

The president read the first draft on his Middle East trip two weeks ago. Speechwriters say he's been scribbling his changes in the margins, and has been practicing for a week in the White House family theater, preparing for the one annual day of pomp when even a lame-duck president reigns.

"They say that politics is show business for ugly people," Michael Waldman, a former speech writer for President Clinton, who is now at the Brennan Center for Justice, told ABC News. "And if that's true, then the State of the Union is kind of the Academy Awards."

Like the Oscars, the speech is often full of drama, as in 1997, when the wrong speech was loaded in Clinton's teleprompter, leaving him to ad lib the introduction, as staffers raced to load the right version.

This year's speech bears some parallels to Reagan's final address, noted former Reagan speech writer Clark Judge.

"We were down in the polls," Judge said. "We had a foreign policy problem that we were largely solving."

With Clinton, writing the speech was often a crash, as depicted in a television program that was often loosely based on the Clinton administration.

"When 'The West Wing' shows speech writers working all night with rings under their eyes under enormous pressure — everybody wants to get in the act — it really is pretty accurate," Waldman said. "The only thing that's not accurate is that they look a lot more glamorous, at two in the morning, than the real speech writers do."

White House officials say Bush has had the speech pretty well finished for days, and he is expected to limit his speech to a handful of issues — rejecting smaller issues he calls "cram-ins."

He is expected to urge Congress to reauthorize the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act, and to pass the economic stimulus plan he worked out with House leaders.

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