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How speechwriters delve into a president’s mind: Lots of listening, studying and becoming a mirror

In World
March 03, 2024

WASHINGTON (AP) — Speechwriting, in one sense, is essentially being someone else’s mirror.

“You can try to find the right words,” said Dan Cluchey, a former speechwriter for President Joe Biden. “But ultimately, your job is to ensure that when the speech is done, that it has a reflection of the speaker.”

That concept is infinitely magnified in the role of the presidential speechwriter. Over the course of U.S. history, those aides have absorbed the personalities, the quirks, the speech cadences of the most powerful leader on the globe, capturing his thoughts for all manner of public remarks, from the mundane to the historic and most consequential.

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

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

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

Amid all those formalities and constraints of a State of the Union address, there is also how a president executes the speech.

Biden’s biggest political liability remains his age (81) and voters’ questions about whether he is still up to the job (his doctor this past week declared him fit to serve ). His every word is watched by Republican operatives eager to capture any misspeak to plant doubt about Biden’s fitness among the public.

“This year, of course, is an election year. It also comes as there’s much more chatter about his age,” said Michael Waldman, who served as a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. “People are really going to be scrutinizing him for how he delivers the speech, as much as 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 lowering costs, shoring up democracy and protecting women’s reproductive care will be among the topics that Biden will address on Thursday night.

Biden likely won’t top the list of the most talented presidential orators. He has thrived the most during small chance encounters with Americans, where interactions can be more off the cuff and intimate.

The plain-spoken Biden is known to hate Washington jargon and the alphabet soup of government acronyms, and he has challenged aides, when writing his remarks, to cut through the clutter and to get to the point with speed. Cluchey, who worked for Biden from 2018 to 2022, said the president was very engaged in the speech drafting process, all the way down to individual lines and words.

Biden can also come across as stiff at times when standing and reading from a teleprompter, but immediately loosens up and appears more comfortable when he switches to a hand-held microphone mid-remark. Biden has also learned to navigate a childhood stutter that he says helped him develop empathy for others facing similar challenges.

To become engrossed in another person’s voice, past presidential speechwriters list things that are critical. One is just doing a lot of listening to the principal, to get a sense of his rhythms and how he uses language.

Lots of direct conversation with the president is key, to try and get inside the commander in chief’s thinking and how that leader frames arguments and make their case.

“This is not an act of impression, where you’re simply just trying to get the accent down,” said Jeff Shesol, another former Clinton speechwriter. “What you really are learning to do and need to learn to do -– this is true of speechwriters in any role, but particularly for a president –- is to understand not just how he sounds, but how he thinks.”

Shesol added: “You’re absorbing not just the rhythms and cadences of speech, but you’re absorbing a worldview.”

Then there is always the matter of the speech-giver going rogue.

Biden is often candid, and White House aides are sometimes left to clean up and clarify what he said in unvarnished moments. But other times when he deviates from the script, it ends up being an improvement on what his aides had scripted.

Take last year’s State of the Union. Biden had launched into an attack prepared in advance against some Republicans who were insisting on requiring renewal votes on popular programs such as Medicare and Social Security, which would effectively threaten their fate every five years.

That prompted heckling from Republicans and shouts of “Liar!” from the audience.

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

“Folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the — off the books now, right? They’re not to be touched?” Biden continued. The crowd of lawmakers applauded. “All right. All right. We got unanimity!”

Speechwriters do try and prepare for such moments, particularly if a president is known to speak extemporaneously.

Shesol recalled that Clinton’s speechwriters would draft remarks that were relatively spare, to account for him veering off on his own. The writers would write a clear structure into the speech that would allow Clinton to easily return to his prepared remarks once his riff was over.

“Clinton used to liken it to playing a jazz solo and then he’s going back to the score,” Waldman added.

Cluchey, when asked for his reaction when his former boss would go off-script, described it as a “ballet with several movements of, you know, panic, to ‘Wait a minute, this is actually very good,’ and then ‘Oh man, he really nailed it.’”

Biden is “at his best when he’s most authentically, most loosely, just speaking the plain truth,” Cluchey said. “The speechwriting process even at its best has strictures around it.”

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