With the State of the Union right around the corner, ABC News’ Jon Karl sat down with past speechwriters to get the skinny on the biggest presidential address of the year.
“It’s the most hectic time in the White House for a speechwriter that you can imagine,” said John Favreau, a former speechwriter for President Obama and one of the youngest to ever hold that position.
“I mean, there’s 3 a.m., 4 a.m. nights leading right up into the speech, no matter how far in advance you try to plan, you’re always changing the speech up until the last minute,” he said.
All four speechwriters we spoke with agreed, though it may be among the most important, the State of the Union is perhaps one of the least gratifying speeches to prepare.
“It’s the prize nobody wants,” said Mary Kate Cary, a speechwriter under President George H. W. Bush, adding that she’d rather write the speech pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey, which she did three times, over the State of the Union “in a New York minute.”
Jeff Shesol, who worked with President Clinton, said one of the biggest challenges is weeding through the many requests from various government agencies clamoring to be mentioned in the speech.
“Suddenly speechwriters become very popular. Suddenly the phone starts lighting up with calls from cabinet secretaries,” he said. “This is actually an exercise not just for the president, but for the entire administration in setting the priorities for the new year.”
“You got to cover everything,” added John McConnell, who helped prepare addresses for President George W. Bush. “You’ve got 20 topics. The hard thing for the speechwriters is coming up with 20 transitions.”
Perhaps the only thing harder than trying to please all of the department heads is keeping the speech to a reasonable length. That fight against lengthy speeches has been more of a battle for some presidents than others.
Clinton holds the record for both longest in words and longest in time — and those were two separate speeches, 1995 and 2000 respectively. Clinton is also famous for his last-minute, down-to-the-wire edits, even making changes on his way to the Capitol.
“There was a lot of rewriting. And the process with President Clinton on these big speeches was very collaborative,” Shesol said. “But by the time you’re in the family theater, you’re not supposed to be messing with the substance of the speech. Now that didn’t always work out that way.”
Few State of the Union speeches have struck a chord in the American memory in the way that President Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” or President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speeches may have done. Even so, each year, presidential speechwriters strive to make this year’s speech stand out from the rest.
So what’s the secret to scripting memorable State of the Union addresses?
Favreau said it’s “listening to your boss as much as possible,” and trying to avoid crafting a “laundry list” of items the president wants to address in the coming year.
McConnell’s motto is “don’t overwrite.”
But above all, Cary said, it’s being flexible.
“You regularly get paragraphs crossed out. And people say, ‘No. No. No. That doesn’t sound like me,’ or whatever,” Cary said. “And if your attitude is, ‘Oh, you ruined my masterpiece,’ you’re not going to last very long.”