State of the Union is a frenzied, sleepless time for the writers

Feb 12, 2013 McClatchy Newspapers

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 Barack Obama named him as 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."

Nixon speechwriter Raymond Price 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 adviser in the Clinton administration and now chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, an international communications company.

Former speechwriters attribute the difficulty largely to the combination of unusual elements: multiple audiences, 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."

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.

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