If past is prologue, President Donald Trump’s first speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night will be largely forgotten by Thursday morning. That’s because, despite the hype, these addresses are often bland, overcooked, truly unremarkable affairs.
Sure, there is plenty of pomp and circumstance. And every now and then, a line is uttered that takes its rightful place in our collective political consciousness, whether for its historical significance (”The era of big government is over”), controversy (”The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”), unintentional comedy (”human–animal hybrids”) or shock value (”You lie!”).
But by and large, the crafting of a State of the Union or State of the Union-style address is a disheartening exercise for the speechwriter, knowing that the late nights and numerous drafts will have minimal pay-off.
“I think there is no other speech where you put in that much time and effort for a speech with an ever-shortening shelf life,” said Jon Favreau, President Barack Obama’s former speechwriter-turned-budding podcast star. “Trump will tweet something the next morning and we will have completely forgotten the speech.”
“In my view, the State of the Union is the worst speech of any possible speech you can write in the White House,” said Matt Latimer, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. “It is a lot of trouble for almost zero impact. … As soon as it is delivered, it is discussed for 24 hours and not much more than that.”
No president, past or present, is under a formal obligation to give an actual speech to Congress. The Constitution requires the president to periodically update lawmakers on the state of the union, and for a good chunk of American history, this involved a written report submitted to the legislative branch. But radio and television made the chance to deliver a speech in person more alluring. And no modern president ― certainly not one as drawn to the promise of a television audience as Donald Trump ― has chosen to scale down the ritual.
What has tripped up presidents and their wordsmiths is the demands of the speech itself. This is, as Trump’s team is surely discovering, quite different from a campaign rally. There are rarely any inspiring moments. Instead, speeches to joint sessions of Congress involve defending legislative progress or making the case for legislative priorities. And there are countless stakeholders who care about what’s said. Every federal agency wants to make sure its priorities are discussed. Most members of Congress are invested in seeing their pet projects receive some airtime. Language must be ultra-specific, lest the wrong implication be made. All of which leaves very little space for big, thematic arcs.
Latimer recalled how for one speech, Bush adviser Ed Gillespie came up with what he thought was a “clever slogan” that packaged together the evening’s themes. “It was something, frankly, rather hackneyed,” Latimer said. But the group workshopped it and found a way to thread it into the speech.
“No one caught on to it. No one remembered it,” Latimer added. Underscoring just how forgettable the line was, he couldn’t remember it either.
Trump has, so far, proven to be a more adapt sloganeer. His campaign speeches were defined by rhetorical potshots at and condescending nicknames for his opponents. His inaugural address will be remembered for one jarring phrase: “American carnage.” But Tuesday night’s speech is fundamentally different from those. He has a government to defend now and world crises that must be addressed.
Favreau confronted a similar challenge with Obama in February 2009 when they crafted an address amid a teetering economy. “I had imagined a much different speech,” Favreau said. “I would have tried to keep it more like the campaign if not for this crisis. But a good chunk of this speech for us was describing what was in the Recovery Act and what steps were being taken to unlock credit.”
It wasn’t the most inspiring of Favreau’s works, and only he and a few others probably remember what the president said then.
The literal state of the union is different now. And Trump is far more free-wheeling than Obama (or any other past president, for that matter). So while Favreau and Latimer both predicted that his joint address would succumb to the same soul-crushing bureaucratic pressure that afflicts all State of the Union speeches, they left the door open for something entirely unique.
“It could have a longer half-life than most of these State of the Unions do because who knows what he will do. People will tune in just to see what happens,” said Latimer. “Will he go off script? I hope so.”
Want more updates from Sam Stein? Sign up for his newsletter, Spam Stein, here.