Presidential Speechwriters Reflect on Past Addresses

The address to the joint session of Congress will be President Donald Trump’s opportunity to extend an olive branch to democrats, according to two former presidential speechwriters speaking at a Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy Institute of Politics and Public Service event yesterday afternoon.

On the eve of Trump’s address, former presidential speechwriters reflected on their time crafting speeches heard by the nation, as well as discussing how Trump could successfully speak to the American people.

Former President Barack Obama’s White House Director of Speechwriting Cody Keenan joined Marc Thiessen, the White House chief speechwriter for former President George W. Bush, at the event in Old North entitled “Channeling the President: A Conversation on Presidential Speechwriting.”

The two spoke about their experiences preparing addresses for former chief executives and discussed the prospects of Trump’s first address to a joint session, which will take place today at 9 p.m.

Robert Schlesinger, the managing opinion editor at U.S. News & World Report, moderated the discussion.

Keenan, who began his career as a campaign intern and rose to director of speechwriting in 2013, said the State of the Union speechwriting process for Obama usually began around Thanksgiving, when the president and his speechwriters would brainstorm what elements and ideas a perfect speech would include.

Though State of the Union addresses typically occur around this time of year, Trump’s speech will not be categorized as a State of the Union address, which tend to occur when a president is a year into his term.
In a statement released Monday, the White House said the president plans to outline his vision for the future of the country.

The State of the Union speechwriting timeline included research beginning in December, while the actual wording of the speech materialized over Christmas break, Keenan said. The final iteration of the speech would be finalized the day of the address.

“This was probably the most annoying moment of the whole process,” Keenan said. “Tonight would be the part where it’s pretty much done, I would probably only start sharing it with a broad group of staff and with the agencies maybe two or three days before, so at this point now I have to compile everyone’s edits.”

Thiessen, who is a contributor for FOX News and was named one of the 100 most influential conservatives in America by The Daily Telegraph in 2010, said that Bush’s speechwriters stressed teamwork and getting a finished product early in the game so Bush would have sufficient time for delivery practice.

Thiessen said the difficulty of the State of the Union address is maintaining a coherent theme throughout the speech while addressing the concerns of various agencies and keeping the president’s priorities at the core.

“The State of the Union Address is the single most watched speech by the President of the United States, but it is also, unless it’s done really well, the worst speech the president gives, because it is by definition a laundry list of policy initiatives,” Thiessen said.

Thiessen said that as viewership of the State of the Union address decreases year to year, Trump must utilize this venue to communicate his message for the rest of his administration right out of the gate.

“This is probably the most people Donald Trump will be speaking to in his Presidency,” Thiessen said. “He should think of this as an hour-long tweet where he can speak directly to the American people, over the heads of the fake news media.”

Thiessen said this is an opportunity for Trump to mold the minds of those still unconvinced about his policies.

“He can speak not just to his followers, but to those Americans who are still trying to decide what to think of him,” Thiessen said. “He’s got a chance to reach those people who are still deciding where the clay is still soft and he can make an impression.”

Keenan echoed Thiessen’s point that this speech has the capability to sway those who are not otherwise particularly invested in politics.

“This is your biggest opportunity, this is your biggest stage,” Keenan said. “People tune into this, this is your one chance to speak to people who might otherwise not listen to you and might tune you out year after year after year after year.”

This speech also presents itself as an opportunity to put the opposition in a difficult position, according to Thiessen. By extending an olive branch to the democrats, Trump can either initiate bipartisanship or frame the democrat’s refusal to work with him as the reason behind any of his administration’s failures.

“The Democratic Party right now is in a miasma of anger over Donald Trump,” Thiessen said. “What’s the way to harness that? It’s to reach out his hand to the other party and say, ‘I want to make America great again’, and lay out his vision, a positive vision, unlike the one in his Inaugural Address.”

Trump could show an effort to sow bipartisanship by saying he is willing to work together to reform the Affordable Care Act, which he has promised to repeal and replace, and retain the best ideas from both sides of the aisle, according to Thiessen.

“When he is now the least popular incoming president in American history, you have a limited amount of time to shore that up,” Keenan said. “To show people you actually have plans.”

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