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January 23, 2007

An expert's view of the president's speech

Posted by David Postman at 1:55 PM

To help set up tonight's State of the Union Address and to put the speech into some historic context, I contacted former White House speechwriter Clark Judge. He was a speechwriter and special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush.

Judge is now managing director of the White House Writers Group, a D.C. communications firm that includes other former White House speechwriters.

Judge agreed to take some questions from me and I hope to be able to do several posts today on how speeches like this come together, how the expectation game is played and how he views tonight's speech.

Q: One thing I've been curious about is how long it takes to write a speech like a State of the Union address. How long ago do you think a draft was begun? Can you tell me a little about the writing process? Is it a group effort from the beginning, or initially more the work of one person?

Is the speech locked down at this point, seven hours before, or are changes still being made right up until delivery?

Judge: Each State of the Union is handled differently, even within administrations. Sometimes the chief writer does it all. Sometimes two or three writers draft. Sometimes everyone on staff has a hand.

This year, as in the past, work began in December. According to media reports, the president identified major areas to touch on. Writers would then, as in the past, consult with the primary policy advisors for each set of issues. The writers would be, of course, very familiar with most of these questions anyway, but there are always policy initiatives to be understood and considerable thinking to be done about core themes and the balancing of sections.

Once a draft is complete, the State of the Union address — like all presidential speeches — goes into staffing. For a speechwriter, staffing is a tricky, sometimes infuriating, sometimes stimulating process. Comments come flooding back. Invariably a staffer who can barely compose a coherent sentence will edit for style. Imagine how speechwriters react to that. But more challenging is reconciling conflicting staffers. Several years ago, speechwriters in the current White House took heat for supposedly not accepting a CIA edit. But in fact speechwriters often must reject edits from supposed experts, usually when there are other equally credible experts involved. Typically — at least for me — the writer makes an effort to get the experts together and looks for a way to resolve the dispute. When differences can't be resolved, he or she may look to senior staff for guidance. Mediation and negotiation are among the least appreciated aspects of the craft.

Tonight's speech has been with the president for some days now. He has been rehearsing it and making edits of his own. If there are last-minute changes, they are personal ones, probably having to do with style and cadence. The main thing by now is not to tinker but to master, so that the president's performance does justice to all the many days put in by so many talented and truly brilliant people to give him a text worthy of delivery to the American nation.

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