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Speechwriters reveal what it’s like to write for State of the Union

Jon+Lovett%2C+former+speechwriter+for+President+Barack+Obama%2C+and+Michael+Waldman%2C+former+speech+writer+for+President+Bill+Clinton%2C+discuss+how+writing+a+presidential+speech+requires+a+lot+of+skill+and+knowledge+about+what+the+president+wants+to+convey.
Alejandro Alba/SHFWire photo
Jon Lovett, former speechwriter for President Barack Obama, and Michael Waldman, former speech writer for President Bill Clinton, discuss how writing a presidential speech requires a lot of skill and knowledge about what the president wants to convey.

WASHINGTON – Trying to make a strong and memorable speech is a difficult and lengthy process.

Four former presidential speechwriters revealed what it’s like to write a presidential speech in a discussion Tuesday a few hours before President Barack Obama’s scheduled State of the Union speech.

“The State of the Union address is by its nature a laundry list of policy proposals,” Marc Thiessen, former chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush and moderator of the panel, said. “We care about it, I think, because it’s the one opportunity the president gets every year to bypass the media filter, and to bypass all the commentators and speak directly to the American people.”

Jon Lovett, former speechwriter  for Obama, said it often seemed as if he was writing for an English professor. He got his drafts back with red marks on them.

“Presidents have different ways of involving themselves in the speech-writing process,” Lovett said. “President Obama gets very much into the writing process. He’s a speechwriter himself.”

Lovett said the process usually begins in November with meetings to discuss what should be mentioned at the State of the Union.

“The process is difficult because it forces a lot of important decisions,” Lovett said. “It’s not just a writing assignment. It’s a very important policy conversation.”

The discussion was hosted by the American Enterprise Institute.

Clark Judge, former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, agreed that writing a presidential speech, especially the State of the Union, requires special skill.

Michael Waldman, former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, says his team of speechwriters tried to have one surprise element in the speeches Clinton gave in his second term to keep the audience engaged.
Michael Waldman, former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, says his team of speechwriters tried to have one surprise element in the speeches Clinton gave in his second term to keep the audience engaged.

“The task of speech writing is the task of thinking through all the levels the president has to think through,” Judge said. “You are thinking about the republic … you are thinking about the state of the economy, you are thinking about the press corps and the political terms.”

Michael Waldman, former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, said that one of the difficulties his team of speechwriters faced was creating a speech for someone in his second term. He said the writers tried to find ways to keep the audience engaged and guessing.

“We always tried to have one big surprise,” Waldman said.

Lovett said that there a few expectations about what Obama may say at the State of the Union address.

“The speech will certainly address the mood that the country is in,” Lovett said. “I think he will address head on the fact that we are five years into a recovery. I expect that it’s also a reset moment for the president to lay out what he wants to do in the next year.”

Alejandro Alba is a senior multimedia journalism major at UTEP. He is currently participating in the Scripps Howard Foundation’s Semester in Washington program. He may be reached at [email protected].

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Speechwriters reveal what it’s like to write for State of the Union