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Speechwriting and Presidential Culpability

What goes on behind the scenes as the State of the Union address is crafted?

July 23, 2003

What goes on behind the scenes as the State of the Union address is crafted?

Things do slip through. Little things. Once I made a senior Presidential adviser a graduate of the wrong elite New York high school. It sure seemed like an affair of state at the time.

Then there was the time my too-clever computer thought that typing "Arafat" was a corruption of "Albright" and efficiently "corrected" me everywhere. Fortunately for the Chairman — and for my longevity — my boss caught that one.

And then there are bigger things. A colleague once came up with a clever idea for a European security initiative — and put it in a speech draft. It fit so well that everyone who looked at the speech, State and Defense Departments alike, just must have assumed they had missed it in the briefing papers.

As did the principal who read the speech. Journalists, however, demanded to know why it hadn't been previewed for them — and the speechwriting staff endured an unpleasant few days.

But the State of the Union speech is different. Like air travel, restaurant kitchens and nuclear weapons, its drafting and editing rely on redundant systems to avoid catastrophe.

Even in the free-form Clinton White House, no policy got through to the speechwriters that the pros didn't like — and nothing got from the speechwriters to the President that the political pros didn't like.

Well before any writing starts, whole papers are drafted, edited and cleared by armies of White House and agency staff — not to mention the outsiders, court intellectuals and hangers-on who inevitably insert themselves — for speechwriters to draw on.

The speechwriter in question knew about the alleged Iraqi attempt to buy uranium because somebody — and it sure looks like that somebody was in the Vice President's office — wanted it in the speech.

As sections of the State of the Union are drafted by various writers, mid- and senior-level policy experts get back in the game. Then, more senior writers put the text together, and more senior policy staff review it. Style wizards and public opinion professionals come in to shine the text.

Whole constructs and sections fall out, only to fight their way back in. Chiefs of staff — and, if you are particularly unlucky, Cabinet secretaries with an abiding sense of unfairness — get personally involved.

More drafts circulate — you read them carefully every time. This is important. You may be sick of the text — but who knows what the guys upstairs or across the river are trying to sneak in? You parse every change, no matter how insignificant it may seem, looking for hidden meanings and concealed dualities.

Finally, the time draws near. Now the President himself is involved, holding meetings with senior staff to review the text, making his own comments and changes, with senior staff help.

At last, the rehearsals. Speechwriters mingle with eminent administration personages as the President adapts to the Teleprompter, works his intonations and tries out meaningful pauses. Believe it or not, President Clinton used to edit down the text during these sessions.

Now, I'm sure that in the case of the 2003 State of the Union, this process involved a smaller group of people than it did in Clinton’s days. The cast of "West Wing" was certainly not sitting in on rehearsals. But at least a half-dozen senior people went to bed through much of January 2003 with that Teleprompter text scrolling across their eyelids.

I'd be willing to bet that none of them was a career CIA employee. The process does, as it winds upwards, whittle out the merely expert in favor of the politically inexpendable.

Which brings me to the dreaded problem of having to correct someone else's mistake. You'd feel everyone else in the room backing away from you, as you tried to explain that your figure was correct, and the one in the principal's head was… well… outdated.

Or that this was a minority region of the country we were visiting, and it just wouldn't be a good idea to start out with "hello, happy campers" in the language of the elites. Or that, well, the evidence about Iraq's efforts to buy uranium from Africa was dubious at best.

So I'd have to say that Mr. Foley — a CIA proliferations expert identified by the White House as having given the NSC staffer the go-ahead to use the sentence — never had a prayer when he tried to raise caveats (as he said he did).

I doubt the speechwriters ever heard about the caveats. The clearance process seldom gives you good reason to trust grumbling outsiders over folks in your own building, folks who are on the team.

The intelligence process went, as it should, not through political speechwriters but through the security professionals. It was up to Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney or their most senior deputies to say: "Uh, sir, about this Uranium thing…"

No one else in the room had a reason in the world to do so. Why they didn't is, to me, the central question. It is certainly hard to believe that this was an innocent mistake. After all, the Bush White House prides itself on its absolute discipline and is loaded with senior staff who have extensive backgrounds in military, intelligence and security matters.

But one thing is clear: Speechwriters and those vetting the President's remarks for accuracy all understand what their administration's political objectives are.

It seems to me that this speech was drafted in an atmosphere where it was well understood by all involved that their primary objective was to make the case against Saddam Hussein in the strongest possible way. Only in that context is it conceivable that a "mistake" on a matter of such importance could have found its way into the State of the Union address.

I keep asking myself: If this were a Democratic administration, would anyone be looking at the NSC staff, or the CIA rank-and-file, for that matter? Or would the Hill be shouting "impeachment!"

And, as someone who thinks a lot about authorship and attribution, I wonder: If the Niger documents are forgeries, who made them — and why? But hey, I'm just the speechwriter.