Crafting Clinton speech isn't for faint of heart STATE OF THE UNION

January 26, 1994|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- As the saying goes, there are two things you should never see being made: a sausage and a law. Here's one more: a Bill Clinton speech.

"It's a very chaotic process," sighed one involved observer.

Picture this: Morning and afternoon yesterday, hour after hour, the president stood at a rostrum in the White House family theater, rehearsing -- and revising -- his State of the Union address, which had already gone through ten drafts.

A team of White House stenographers was on hand to take down the latest version, while top advisers stood by to comment on the changes.

Present, at one time or another, were Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, chief of staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, senior staffers David Gergen, George Stephanopoulos and Mark Gearan, presidential pollster Stanley Greenberg, and political consultants James Carville and Paul Begala, among others.

While Mr. Clinton droned on, his audience drifted in and out of the long, narrow theater, which seats about 50 for movies. One participant likened the scene to another Washington attraction, the National Cathedral, where throngs of tourists shuffle around the fringes of the sanctuary as religious services are being held.

"He likes to edit on paper, and then he likes to edit by ear," is how one official explained the making of a presidential speech, Clinton-style.

But another of those who had a hand in the process added: "They would be better off if they could have this fire drill earlier."

The preliminary drafting of this year's State of the Union, the first of the Clinton presidency, began before Christmas, when Mr. Clinton met with his advisers.

Three mid-level staffers, communications aide David E. Dreyer, health care specialist Bob Boorstin and foreign policy aide Jeremy Rosner, were assigned to collect ideas and come up with an initial draft.

Congressional leaders, including Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, were consulted, as were speechwriting veterans, such as longtime Kennedy wordsmith Robert Shrum.

A first draft, along with a notebook full of idea memos, followed Mr. Clinton to South Carolina before New Year's.

Later, as he toured Europe, the president consulted by phone several times with the speech team back at the White House.

Last week, the speech was recast again after a meeting with Mr. Dreyer and Mr. Boorstin aboard Air Force One, as Mr. Clinton returned to Washington from viewing earthquake damage in Los Angeles.

Over the weekend, the president took a draft to Camp David and then summoned Mr. Gore and others to his White House quarters Sunday night for a session that ran well past 11 o'clock.

Toward the end of the process, aides said, Mr. Clinton was determined to craft an answer to Republican critics, and some Democrats, who argue that he and Mrs. Clinton have exaggerated the extent of the nation's health care problem.

On Monday night, Mr. Clinton heavily marked up yet another draft -- the ninth -- and left it for White House ushers to pick up when he went to bed.

By yesterday morning at 6, typists were at work on the revisions, which, one aide joked, required the services of a team of handwriting experts.

"This is a man who likes to keep editing," said one official, mindful that Mr. Clinton was rewriting his first address to Congress last February in his limousine on the way to deliver the speech. In September, when he was to deliver his health care address to Congress, the last-minute frenzy of rewriting led to the wrong speech's being loaded into the TelePrompter.

What makes this process all the more curious is the fact that Mr. Clinton is what one aide describes as a "textual deviant," someone who departs freely and often from his prepared text.

The Sept. 22 health care speech text, for example, was 4,400 words long; the president wound up delivering 7,200 words that night, according to White House aides.

With a year of experience under their belt, and with Washington veterans like Mr. Gergen in charge at the White House now, a senior official who briefed reporters yesterday afternoon tried to sound confident that there would be no 11th-hour brinksmanship this time.

"I think," he carefully added.

But by last evening, a crisis air began to spread through the White House as once again it became clear that the speech would not be finished early after all.

"You gotta go through a zillion rewrites," said Mr. Clinton, holding up the manuscript briefly for reporters before returning to the task at hand.

HIGHLIGHTS

To hear highlights from President Clinton's State of the Union address and Senator Bob Dole's response on behalf of the Republican Party, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; 836-5028 in Harford County; 848-0338 in Carroll County. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6100 after you hear the greeting.

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