Scenes From Writing the State of the Union

Drugs, booze, cackling chickens, and the State of the Union speech.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

As I argued this morning, the State of the Union address is usually an underwhelming affair: Yes, huge numbers of people tune in, but the speech itself is rarely memorable. That's not to say that it's not a huge deal, especially in the White House in the days and weeks leading up to the big event. As I recount in White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters, the big speech has produced some memorable and amusing anecdotes from inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

* Harry Truman didn't look forward to his 1948 address. "Congress meets--Too bad too," he wrote in his diary. "They'll do nothing but wrangle, pull phony investigations and generally upset the affairs of the Nation." (How many presidents must share that sentiment?) He went on: "I'm to address them soon. They won't like the address either." He was right. In 43 minutes Republicans applauded him twice. Truman was delighted, though. Gathering with staff in the Oval Office after the speech, he pulled scotch and bourbon out of his desk and they drank "Success in '48!"

* In 1958, Dwight Eisenhower was recovering from a slight stroke, prompting his staff to limit the speech to 20 minutes. Ike wanted none of it. "Don't tell the damn staff this, Art, but I don't mind if the speech goes to 35 or 40 minutes," the president told speechwriter Arthur Larson. The speech ran 44 minutes. "So far as this occasion was concerned, he rose to it," the New York Times reported. (Eisenhower's most famous presidential utterance, the warning against a military industrial complex, was first conceived as a "permanent war-based industry" and "war based industrial complex" for a 1961 State of the Union address, but ended up in Ike's farewell address.)

* Lyndon Johnson contemplated announcing in his 1968 State of the Union that he would not seek reelection, but decided it would look bad if he presented a long agenda and then said, "so long, I'm leaving." He didn't like early drafts of the speech in any case. "This goddamn draft they've given me wouldn't make chickens cackle if you waved it at 'em in the dark," he told one longtime adviser, adding, "I get the best minds in Washington together, and what do they come up with? Vomit. Fifty pages of vomit."

* Richard Nixon understood how boring a State of the Union could be. "Why do we have to have all that dull stuff about agriculture and cesspools?' he asked his staff preparing for the 1970 State of the Union. Nixon speechwriter Ray Price, powered by "greenies" (amphetamines) from the White House doctor, pulled two consecutive all-nighters before suffering "complete spatial disorientation" on the third day. He saw his desk in front of him and also against a far wall. For days he would see right angles in corridors where there were none. A young aide named Richard Blumenthal, now running for senator from Connecticut, helped him home for some much-needed sleep.

* Ronald Reagan's 1982 address started the trend of having guests in the first lady's box. Aram Bakshian, the speechwriter who came up with the idea, later called it both his best and worst idea. It became too much of a gimmick, he lamented. Reagan was pleased with the speech. "I wonder if I'll ever get used to addressing the joint session of Cong?" he wrote in his diary, adding, "I think the speech was a 4 base hit."

* Bill Clinton delivered his 1998 address days after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. "Now the speech is going to have to be really poetic," speechwriter Michael Waldman had quipped. "Yeah," replied John Podesta, the deputy chief of staff, "now it's going to have to be in iambic pentameter." As the big day approached senior staff carefully scoured it for double entendres (the list became "quite long" one speechwriter told me).

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