The State of the Union address: A speechwriter's nightmare

Jonathan Karl, Richard Coolidge and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

Politics Confidential

The State of the Union is one of the most hyped, most watched speeches a president delivers all year, and for the speechwriters who help the presidents craft their address to the nation, it’s one of the most dreaded assignments.

In interviews with “Politics Confidential,” four presidential speechwriters spanning the last four administrations recounted the process and the days spent toiling over the State of the Union address. Jon Favreau, former speechwriter to President Obama, called the State of the Union one of the “least gratifying” speeches to write, while Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, summed up the task as “the prize nobody wants.”

“The speech is an exercise in ego management as much as it's an exercise in writing,” Jeff Shesol, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, said. “Suddenly, speechwriters become very popular. Suddenly, the phone starts lighting up with calls from cabinet secretaries. ...This is actually an exercise not just for the president, but for the entire administration in setting the priorities for the new year."

“It is the most hectic time in the White House for a speechwriter that you can imagine,” Favreau said. “There's 3 a.m., 4 a.m. nights leading right up into the speech. No matter how far in advance you try to plan, you're always changing the speech up until the last minute.”

Clinton was famously prone to making last-minute changes. Shesol, who helped craft two of Clinton’s State of the Union addresses, recalled him making edits in the presidential limo while he was en route to Capitol Hill to deliver his remarks. The late changes would then be rushed to the teleprompter before the speech began.

“If you don't get those entered into the teleprompter, then they're out of sync,” he said.

Despite the months of planning that go into writing the State of the Union, there are often unexpected moments once the speech is delivered that end up getting more attention than the most carefully crafted lines in the speech. Remember that moment in 2010 when Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito shook his head as the president expressed his disapproval of the court’s ruling on Citizens United?

“We did not think when we were working on that section about Citizens United that it was going to be such a big deal, that all the justices were there,” Favreau said. “There was no plan, ‘Let's have him say this. And then we know they're going to go to the justices.’”

McConnell recalled his surprise when President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” phrase from his 2002 state of the union address became a lasting metaphor.

“I remember there was a headline ... not long afterwards, something along the lines of, ‘Axis Powers Denounce Bush,’” McConnell said. “That's when it occurred to me, ‘Wow, it really caught on out there.’”

To learn more about the making of the State of the Union address, including the historical back story behind the guests who sit with the first lady during the speech, check out this episode of “Politics Confidential.”

ABC News’ Stephanie Smith, Alexandra Dukakis, Gary Westphalen, Tom Thornton, Danny O'Shea, and Dick Norling contributed to this episode.