Speechwriters unknown heroes behind US State of the Union

US President Barack Obama

WASHINGTON - Day after day from morning to night, a small cadre of wordsmiths searches for the right message, tone and cadence for the US president to speak to the American people.

When President Barrack Obama delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday in Congress, it will be the capstone of weeks of work for a team of White House speechwriters.

"It is a massive undertaking, the process starts really early around Thanksgiving (November 26)," said Jeff Shesol, a State of the Union speechwriter for former president Bill Clinton.

The White House currently has nine speechwriters. A number of them also work for First Lady Michelle Obama and other officials and bodies in the executive.

At the White House, aboard Air Force One, between hotels, they live their lives just behind the scenes of the president's hectic schedule.

The job is traditionally discreet, and often demanding, given the president's need to speak on breaking news as well as in formal settings such as the all-important State of the Union address delivered in the heart of Congress.

An ideal speechwriter "should be possessed of high competence, great physical vigour, and a passion for anonymity," according to the position's description in a 1937 report.

The job can be grueling, but speechwriters know their time at the White House makes for an effective springboard for the rest of their career in politics or the private sector.

'Extraordinary job'

"It's an extraordinary job," said Adam Frankel, who was part of Obama's writing team until 2011 and highlighted the president's taste for good writing.

"He is a gifted writer and he also has respect for the writing process and understands what that process is like. He is very involved in the writing process from the very beginning."

Cody Keenan, 33, a principal speechwriter for the president writing the State of the Union, compared the work to graduate school.

"You get a paper assignment, you might pull an all-nighter or come in really early to finish, and you hand it in and then you get his marks back and find out whether he likes it or not," Keenan said.

"The good thing is he'll make detailed edits when he gets the speech, and he's generous with his time -- he'll walk us through the edits and explain why he made them."

The difference, Shesol pointed out, "is that you just don't get a grade and move on to the next assignment, you are going to rewrite this one again and again."

In their small and exclusive world, a few figures hold a special place for speech writers, including president John F. Kennedy, whose speeches resonate beyond their time.

Ted Sorensen was one of the few writers who got to pen words for Kennedy. He was also one of his chief advisers.

At Kennedy's side daily, Sorensen was in a prime position to understand the presidents mind, and exchange ideas with him as well.

For all his successors, the question of access to the president, if not always easy, is central to the job.

Historic speech

The first State of the Union speech was delivered in January 1790 by George Washington. Then, it was a simple document, closer to an administrative report for Congress rather than a policy platform.

It was Woodrow Wilson who began the practice of presidential speeches to a broader audience in 1913.

Paradoxically, these moments of supposed great policy import where the country's president unveils priorities for the coming year have rarely yielded historic discourse.

But there is at least one notable exception: the January 29, 2002 speech by George W. Bush used the formulation "axis of evil" to describe Iraq, North Korea and Iran. The phrase would become emblematic of his polarizing presidency.

If the texts are sometimes forgotten, the solemn moment when the chief executive makes his annual trip to Congress remains.

Shesol calls it an "incredible ceremony" at the packed chamber of the House of Representatives.

The audience is full of emotion over a speech he helped write and rewrite for weeks.

"To have played some role in writing the words that the president is saying is a thrill that is hard to describe," Shesol said.

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