The State of the Union is an odd speech. It's the one time in a typical year that the president can count on to speak directly to the entire nation (or as much of it as he's going to get). But because of that it's also almost always a rhetorical mess—a policy laundry list that tends to lack thematic coherence. This isn't for lack of effort on the part of the speechwriters, and sometimes the presidents.
Speaking at a Bipartisan Policy Center panel of former presidential speechwriters this morning, Jeff Shesol, a former Clinton speechwriter, recalled a suggestion he made not too long after he arrived at the White House for Clinton's 1999 State of the Union address. "I was full of what I thought of as fresh ideas, I wrote a memo arguing for a tightly thematic approach to the State of the Union address—to finally reject the laundry list, to make an argument for something, but let a lot of other stuff fall by the way side in these other speeches and so forth," he said. "I made my case in a couple of page memo." How'd that idea go over? "I was told, essentially, 'You're adorable.'" Then, he said, "I got to work like everybody else filling out the laundry list."
John McConnell, who wrote speeches for President George W. Bush echoed Shesol's experience. "I actually thought we were going to accomplish this after 9/11, the first State of the Union after the attack," he recalled. "I really thought it was possible, but that was also an 'adorable' notion."
There's a reason for this. The State of the Union address is a blueprint for governing, a signal to the federal executive bureaucracy of what the president's priorities are.
Which isn't to say that attempts to get around that issue don't periodically crop up. As his staff worked on his 1970 State of the Union address, as I recount in White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters, Richard Nixon complained to them that he wanted the proverbial thematic speech. "Why do we have to have all that dull stuff about agriculture and cesspools?" Nixon asked his aides. "Let's get the dull subjects out of the way in a paragraph toward the beginning." At this point he leaned back and put his feet up on a desk. "Good God," he said, frowning, "Agriculture in a State of the Union isn't worth a damn."
The fix Nixon came up with, which Reagan also tried in his second term, was a long, programmatic, written State of the Union address and a shorter, more thematic spoken one.
And Shesol wasn't the only Clinton era scribe to come up with the notion of getting away from the laundry list approach. As Clinton was preparing his 1998 address, the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. "Now the speech has to be really poetic," chief speechwriter Michael Waldman quipped in one meeting, prompting deputy chief of staff John Podesta to fire back, "Yeah, now it's going to have to be in iambic pentameter."