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January 26, 2007

One Speechwriter's Point of View
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

My friend and fellow ex-White House speechwriter Vinca LaFleur has written a thoughtful and elegant piece about the damp squib that was this year's State of the Union:

As someone who has labored to meet tough deadlines and satisfy tough audiences myself, I sympathize with the task the White House speechwriters faced with this year's State of the Union.  Drafting this annual address to Congress is rarely an enjoyable exercise; my former Clinton administration colleague Michael Waldman once described it as boiling down gallons of advice into a few tablespoons of intense sauce, while former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson reportedly dubbed the process the seven-day death march.

This year, however, the White House speechwriting team faced an exceptionally difficult task. 

With President Bush's approval rating at an all-time low, an emboldened Democratic majority in Congress, and the inescapable backdrop of carnage in Iraq, many critics had concluded the speech would flop well before the president stepped to the podium. 

The White House had tried to generate interest by promising a new and improved address -- one that would focus on a few broad themes, not a lengthy list of initiatives.  Yet, given President Bush's lack of trust among Democrats and shrinking confidence and support among Republicans, he never had the political capital to propose a far-reaching agenda.  Indeed, as spokesman Tony Snow admitted, part of the impulse behind the new formula was that the White House "want[ed] people to watch" suggesting they feared the electorate was already turned off and tuning out.   

The president's pens were thus multiply challenged in making their boss look good.  It wasn't within their power to turn small steps on domestic policy into giant leaps for mankind; nor could they reorient the president's wildly unpopular position on Iraq.  But they were the ones who would find the words with which the policies were presented, the ones who would articulate the arguments and bring the benefits of action to life. 

Unfortunately, words failed them. 

First, the president's speech lacked a narrative structure to draw listeners in and along.  The first part of the address half-heartedly employed the promise of a future of hope and opportunity to stitch its key points together, but that framework was jettisoned as soon as the president made the pivot to foreign policy.  This was an odd decision, since winning what Bush calls a “decisive ideological struggle presumably is essential to our nation's hopeful future as well.  By abandoning the phrase, however hackneyed it might have been, the speech's authors undermined whatever impact it might have had -- and lost a chance to connect the end of the address to the beginning. 

In contrast, Senator Jim Webb, in the Democratic response, made clear at the outset that he intended to explain the differences between the parties on two key issues -- the economy and Iraq -- and his speech proceeded to do just that, up to and including its dramatic conclusion.  When the speech was over, listeners were able to reconstruct its logic on their own. 

Second, the drafters missed opportunities to humanize the speech.  People connect with people, not policies, yet even on issues like education and health care that lend themselves to real-life success stories, the president spoke primarily in dry terms and generalities.  When compared to Senator Webb, who so effectively wove his family's story of service and sacrifice into his remarks, President Bush's address had a compulsory feel, as if it was an exercise he had to get through instead of a set of exciting ideas he cared about getting across. 

Finally, though the White House wisely resisted excess rhetorical flourish, the final text was more flat than fireside chat, bereft of compelling images or descriptions.  President Bush's supporters have praised his preference for plainspoken language, but excising anecdotes, allusions, and poetry from a speech does not automatically make it forceful; to the contrary, as Mark Oppenheimer recently argued in the Wall Street Journal, “The best speeches…depend for their power on the ability to strike chords that already exist within us.

Once again, the contrast with Senator Webb's performance was striking.  Despite the Senator's inherent disadvantage of speaking before a television camera instead of a live audience, he was able to convey more personal intensity and engage more directly with his listeners by using language that was straightforward but not simplistic, and drawing effectively on history, quotations, and rhetorical devices to drive his arguments home. 

Thus, for the first time in history, the response to the State of the Union was far superior to the speech itself.  But in fairness to President Bush's speechwriting team, the substance and style of his national address were undoubtedly set from the top.  The speechwriters wouldn't have gotten the credit if the president's speech had been a smash, and they are not the ones who should be blamed for its shortcomings.  A successful State of the Union address is always more than words.

Great speeches, as any speechwriter knows, depend on great ideas.  That is why, despite the gracious nod to Speaker Pelosi at the start, and the uplifting stories of American heroism at the end, the 2007 State of the Union fell short on eloquence and failed to inspire enthusiasm.


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