WASHINGTON — Cody Keenan haunts the basement of the West Wing at all hours, laboring over the State of the Union address while cloaked in a black pullover that a friend jokes is his “good luck fleece.”
So Keenan hopes.
The pressure is on the ruddy, 32-year-old wordsmith — the nationally televised address Tuesday will be his first major effort since President Obama named him chief White House speechwriter.
In the small club of past presidential speechwriters, the State of the Union is known as a notoriously miserable task. It’s also a peculiar puzzle, as much policy document as speech, but dressed up with prime-time-worthy prose.
When successful, it can set a tone, seize a moment or shift a debate. As often as not, it is forgettable, dull, or memorable only for mishaps.
The first State of the Union in a second term has an added burden: It can set the agenda for the relatively brief window of productivity for a lame-duck president. In Obama’s case, expectations were raised by last month’s inaugural speech, which surprised many by laying out an assertive liberal agenda.
Speechwriters often begin working on the address months in advance, and experts say the process can be intense, not to mention stomach-churning. Interest groups, aides, agencies and first ladies have been known to want their way with it and their words in it.
So it was hardly astonishing that Keenan was in his lucky sweater as dawn broke one morning last week. A colleague noted his early arrival, and Keenan motioned to the black leather couch in the office. “I slept there,” he said.
Former White House speechwriters describe the stressful build-up to the State of the Union with words like “contentious” and “death march.”
Raymond Price, a speechwriter for President Nixon, wrote the first draft of the 1970 address in a sleepless, hallucinatory, three-day binge powered by “greenies,” amphetamines prescribed by the White House doctor, Price told Robert Schlesinger, who wrote “White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters.” Nixon tore the draft apart.
If a favorite line or two survives, it is a badge of honor, of sorts.
“It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve done a lot of hard things,” said Don Baer, a chief speechwriter and advisor in the Clinton administration and now chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, an international communications firm.
Former speechwriters attribute the difficulty largely to the combination of unusual elements: multiple audiences, a high-profile time slot, broad topics and competing interests.
“Everybody wants their program, their project. You get rooms full of suggestions, memos from Cabinet departments you didn’t even know existed,” said Joshua Gilder, who worked as a senior speechwriter in the Reagan White House. “They have legitimate reason for trying, but as a speechwriter you have to weigh that against the need for the president to give a coherent message and not put everybody to sleep.”
Gilder is speaking literally. State of the Union addresses are delivered at 9 p.m. Eastern time and have tended to get increasingly longer over the years. Many a politician, Supreme Court justice and, no doubt, droopy-eyed television viewer has taken a catnap.
In 1986, Gilder said, President Reagan’s speechwriting team decided on the “ingenious” solution of submitting a detailed document to Congress outlining the State of the Union, but crafting only a brief speech. Reagan’s speechwriters wrote a 20-minute speech, although it took the president 31 minutes to deliver it, according to the American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara.
“One of the reasons these things are so long is because everyone is applauding every time the president sneezes,” he said.
That’s not always the reason. In 1995, President Clinton famously indulged in some improvisation. His speech — which was being written until 45 minutes before showtime — was 5,800 words, less than an hour in delivery, Baer said. When the president finished, it clocked in at 9,200 words and an hour and 24 minutes — then a State of the Union record. (Clinton spoke four minutes longer in his final address. That record still stands.)
Other addresses have made news with their turns of phrase.
President George W. Bush’s characterization of North Korea, Iraq and Iran as the “axis of evil” sparked an international debate.
Clinton’s 1996 speech became known for its declaration that the “era of big government is over.”
(The phrase was not intended to be a clear shift from liberalism. As originally written, the line concluded with the caveat: “but the era of every man for himself must never begin.” Some in the White House objected that “man” was inappropriate. The line became: “but we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.” Reworded, it was quickly forgotten.)
If all goes well, missteps are excised through rigorous rewriting. Clinton rehearsed in the family theater before aides, tweaking phrases and taking notes. Reagan used to approve drafts well in advance, in time for agencies to sign off on the policies he would propose.
“When a president and his staff are working on one of those speeches, he knows exactly what each word is going to mean to each audience,” said Michael Waldman, the chief White House speechwriter from 1995 to 1999.
For an Obama speechwriter, there is a heavy emphasis on the writing because the boss, a successful author, has strong opinions about word choices, cadence and emphasis, said David Axelrod, Obama’s longtime message guru.
Obama launched the writing of Tuesday’s speech in an Oval Office session, during which he discussed with Keenan his overall goals and ideas about particular words and phrases.
Before taking over as chief writer, Keenan worked closely with Obama on remarks the president offered in Tucson and Newtown, Conn., as the nation mourned the mass shootings in those communities.
“Cody’s someone who has collaborated with the president on some of his most memorable work,” said David Plouffe, a longtime advisor to the president. “It’s a very personal relationship between the president and his speechwriter — maybe more than anyone else on staff.”