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State of the Union: The crafting of a speech

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For one thing, since Wilson, presidents don't really write them anymore. His mediocre successor, Warren Harding, suffering a rare flash of insight, hired a speechwriter named Judson Welliver. Since then, presidential speeches and certainly every SOTU have been crafted by teams like those headed by Winston and Mr. Kusnet. In fact, there's an exclusive club, the Judson Welliver Society, made up only of speechwriters who wrote for presidents (I wrote for a vice president so I don't qualify).

But the changes in how the SOTU gets done go far beyond who actually writes it. Even in FDR's time, putting one together could be the job of four people – a string quartet. Now it's a group the size of the New York Philharmonic.

The best description of what it's like appears in "POTUS Speaks: Finding the Words That Defined the Clinton Presidency," Michael Waldman's remarkably spin-free account of the 1996 speech. He takes us through the first meetings in December, the polling, the memos gathered from well-known outsiders, meetings with cabinet secretaries and members of Congress – even what was billed as a "thinkers' dinner," a glittering, formal event in the White House Red Room where Mr. Clinton listened to guests.

Mr. Waldman describes staffers weighing in, and writers trying out "thematic paragraphs." And that was before his team wrote the first draft. Then Clinton reviewed it, ordered a second draft, then many more before Waldman finally could run through the Capitol corridors and insert a floppy disk into the teleprompter.

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