'This Week': Writing the State of the Union

ABC's Jonathan Karl sits down with former presidential speechwriters Jon Favreau, Jeff Shesol, Mary Kate Cary, and John McConnell.
3:00 | 01/26/14

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Transcript for 'This Week': Writing the State of the Union
to sit next to her. Not only an extraordinary football player, but an extraordinary human being, comes from an extraordinary family. A great role model for young people all over America. Marcus lit trel, the loan survivor. So Americans can see what Americans fighting for freedom is really like in real life. Some of our roundtable regulars picking who they'd like to see as the Obama special guest at the state of the union. More picks later. And now a unique take on the president's make or break moment Tuesday from the men and women who have helped craft the commander in chiefs words. It's a huge night for the president, but also for a white house speech writer. We met four of them earlier this week right down the street. Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States. This is one of the most-hyped, most-watched, arguably most important speeches a president gives. But it's a bear to write, isn't it? Maybe the least gratifying. Yes. Surprised nobody wants it. You'd rather write the speech pardoning the Turkey than the state of the union? In a New York minute. He will not end up on anyone's dinner table, not this guy. Those can be fun. We had 24 senior staff and officers who edit the speech before it went to the president. And that was a total nightmare. Jon, you're the most recent doing this, the weeks and days before the speech is done, is there kind of a scramble? It is the most hectic time in the white house for a speech writer that you can imagine. There's 3:00 A.M., 4:00 A.M. Nights leading up until the speech. No matter how far in advance you try to plan, you're always changing the speech up until the last minute. Everybody wants their project in the state of the union. Suddenly speech writers are very popular. The phone starts light up with calls from cabinet secretaries. How do you respond to that? With great interest and respect and hang up the phone and pass along through channels. That will probably -- Eliminate the idea. But some you have to respond to. This is an exercise not just for the president, but the entire administration for setting priorities for the year. We are Americans. President bush was the same way. And I think he was cognizant of the fact that the state of the union, each little agency had their moment there where they very carefully had it worded what their priority was. And I think he was respectful that have. So often the reason why they end up not being memorable is they're laundry lists, right? Right. You have to cover everything. You have 20 topics. The hard thing for the speech writers is coming up with 20 transitions. When people would come in with these suggestions and really lean on the speech writers to put these things in. President bush would notice that when it happened and he would call these things cram-ins. And he could pick them out with surgical precision and remove them. The thing I like, aside from the laundry list and the priorities, and I'm curious of the guests in the gallery. My style of speech writing is great stories make great speeches. It started in '82 with Reagan. And we saw the heroism of one of our young government employees. Lenny. He dove into the icy waters and saved people from the air Florida crash in Washington. That's part of the charm of it, seeing the Americans up in the gallery. I wonder if he realized at the time when president Reagan did that this would be something that would happen every state of the union since. Distinguished Americans referred to. They call them Lenny. One of the most-watched, but not memorable. We think of the few -- We will not be intimidated by the threats of dictators. Like the Ford freedom speech with fdr, or the war on poverty speech by lbj. All-out war on poverty and unemployment in these united States. So, Jon, will president Obama in this speech achieve that -- Absolutely. Measure of immortality. In the state of the union? Everyone is going to say this is not a laundry list this year. By the time you get to the speech, it's somewhat of a laundry list just because, as said, the president is cc1: Giving his priorities are for the country for the year on every topic foreign and domestic. As a speech writer for president Clinton. He holds the record for the longest state of the union ever. Two records, the longest in time -- We are fortunate to be alive. And this is our moment. And longest in words. Again, we are here in the sanctuary of democracy. Those were two different speeches. I believe they will stand for some time. One of the tricks, is how to get into the speech? You have the visuals which is so great. And you have the salutations at the beginning. Mr. Speaker -- In 2002, the first one after 9/11, the first line was something like 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. It's rare when you're reporting so much bad news, so much ominous news, but that's the way that -- to bring it home to declare that the state of our union is strong. And it was at the time. In fact we have only seen one president one time ever definitively state that the state of the union was not that good. Not good. And I must say to you that the state of the union is not good. And that was jerry Ford right after watergate. The next year, he said something that I liked. The state of our union is better. In many ways, a lot better. But still not good enough. You find a way to do it. And there's variations. It's getting stronger. Or we are strong. The state of our union is stronger. There's always some way to do it. But it's an important thing to valy date, I think. Around the table on that. State of the union is? Always strong. Always strong. I'll just go with strong. I like jerry Ford, better, but not good enough yet. I think the state of the union is getting incrementally stronger, and I would not suggest stating it that way in the speech. I think that's where we are. Incrementally is not -- In the 90s we were big on that. Jeff, we talk about the tinkering, presidents changing and editing. Nobody did it more than bill Clinton. A lot of rewriting. With the president on the big speeches, it was very collaborative. But by the time you're in the family theater, you shouldn't be messing with the substance of the speech. Didn't always work out that way. President Clinton making changes on the way to the capital. Overstated? That is not overstated. What is it that makes a great speech writer? Listening to your boss as much as possible. Focus on the matter at hand. Don't overwrite. You rarely get paragraphs crossed out. People say, no, no, no, that doesn't sound like me. If your attitude is you ruined my masterpiece, you're not going to last long. Our thanks to the speech writers. We'll be right back. I believe the president should invite miles Scott, he's a symbol of hope and resilienresiliency. Hunt down cases of people helped by obamacare, instead of hurt. If that doesn't work, maybe bring her personal trainer. Maybe we can all get down a routine of how to get some of those famous arms. I think the first lady should have an empty chair to represent the millions of Americans who have been left out of the partisan political process in Washington, D.C. And who have felt absent from any economic gain over the last generation and to teal like they do have

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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