Listen a lot, study and become a mirror

By | March 3, 2024

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a sense, speechwriting is essentially someone else’s mirror.

“You can try to find the right words,” said Dan Cluchey, President Joe Biden’s former speechwriter. “But ultimately your job is to make sure that when the speech is finished, it is a reflection of the speaker.”

That concept is magnified infinitely in the role of the presidential speechwriter. Over the course of American history, these aides have absorbed the personalities, quirks and speech cadence of the world’s most powerful leader, capturing his thoughts for all manner of public comments, from the mundane to the historic and most consequential.

There are few moments during a presidency when the art—and the rigorous, often painful process—of speechwriting is more on display than during a State of the Union, when a president’s wide range of policy aspirations and political messages come together in one, hour plus carefully choreographed speech at the Capitol. Biden will deliver the annual address on Thursday.

It’s a process that former White House speechwriters say takes months, with untold lobbying and input from various federal agencies and others outside the president’s inner circle, all working to ensure their favored proposals are mentioned. Speechwriters have the unenviable task of synthesizing dozens of ideas into a coherent narrative of a president’s vision for the year.

It’s less elegant prose, more a laundry list of policy ideas.

Amid all the formalities and limitations of a State of the Union address, there is also the way a president delivers the speech.

Biden’s biggest political liability remains his age (81) and voters’ questions about whether he is still up to the task (his doctor declared him fit to serve last week). His every word is being watched by Republican operatives eager to capture every misstatement to sow doubt about Biden’s suitability in the public’s mind.

“This year is of course an election year. It’s also because there’s a lot more talk about his age,” said Michael Waldman, who served as a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. “People are really going to scrutinize him, both the way he delivers the speech and what he says.”

Biden will remain at Camp David through Tuesday and is expected to spend much of that time preparing for the State of the Union. Bruce Reed, the White House deputy chief of staff, accompanied Biden to the presidential retreat outside Washington on Friday evening.

The White House has said cutting costs, strengthening democracy and protecting women’s reproductive care will be among the topics Biden will discuss Thursday evening.

Biden is unlikely to top the list of the most talented presidential orators. He thrives most during small chance encounters with Americans, where interactions can be more informal and intimate.

The outspoken Biden is known to hate Washington jargon and the government’s alphabet soup of acronyms, and in writing his remarks he has challenged aides to cut through the clutter and get to the point quickly. Cluchey, who worked for Biden from 2018 to 2022, said the president was deeply involved in crafting the speech, down to the individual lines and words.

Biden can also seem stiff at times when he stands and reads from a teleprompter, but he immediately loosens up and seems more comfortable when he switches to a handheld microphone midway through a comment. Biden has also learned to cope with a childhood stutter, which he says has helped him develop empathy for others facing similar challenges.

To delve into someone else’s voice, former presidential speechwriters mention things that are critical. You just listen to the director a lot, to get a sense of his rhythms and how he uses language.

Many direct conversations with the president are critical, to try to gain insight into the commander in chief’s thinking and how that leader formulates arguments and makes his case.

“This is not an impression where you’re just trying to soften the accent,” said Jeff Shesol, another former Clinton speechwriter. “What you really learn to do and need to learn to do – this is true for speechwriters in any role, but especially for a president – ​​is to understand not just how he sounds, but also how he thinks.”

Shesol added, “Not only are you absorbing the rhythms and cadences of speech, but you are also absorbing a worldview.”

Then there’s always the matter of the speech giver going rogue.

Biden is often candid, and White House aides sometimes have to clean up and clarify what he said in off-the-cuff moments. But other times when he deviates from the script, it ends up being an improvement on what his assistants had written.

Take last year’s State of the Union. Biden had launched a pre-prepared attack on some Republicans who insisted that renewed votes were needed for popular programs like Medicare and Social Security, which would effectively threaten their fate every five years.

That led to bickering from Republicans and cries of “Liar!” from the audience.

Biden immediately pivoted, urging Republicans to contact his office for a copy of the proposal and joking that he enjoyed their “conversion.”

“Folks, as we all seem to agree, Social Security and Medicare are off the books now, right? Shouldn’t they be touched?’ Biden continued. The crowd of MPs applauded. “Okay. Okay. We have unanimity!”

Speechwriters try to prepare for such moments, especially when a president is known to speak extemporaneously.

Shesol recalled that Clinton’s speechwriters made relatively brief comments to explain that he was deviating on his own. The writers would write a clear structure into the speech, making it easy for Clinton to return to his prepared remarks once his riff was over.

“Clinton always likened it to playing a jazz solo and then he goes back to the score,” Waldman added.

When Cluchey was asked about his reaction to his former boss going off script, he described it as a “ballet with different movements of, you know, panic, to ‘Wait a minute, this is actually really good,’ and then ‘Oh. man, he really did a good job. ”

Biden is “at his best when he is just speaking the plain truth in the most authentic and loosest way possible,” Cluchey said. “The process of writing speeches has limitations even at its best.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *