Scrolling my Facebook feed. Dem pal says, "I'm calling it now: Joe Kennedy is totally the next president." (Despite Chapstickaquiddick.) Allllright, everybody. I'm not going to do better than that at this stage. It's been real, as it always is. Thanks for joining me. And good night.
Kennedy butt-chugger Matthews liked Joe's speech. What about you? "Looks a little like Teddy, sounds a lot like Bobby," sez ex-Dem White House scribe. "Politics aside, I thought the response was good. He didn't do the 'you heard a lot from the president tonight but.' … Instead treated it like a separate eventand a shared vision, not an agenda (which is where other responses so often fail). "
I've been waylaid by a little domestic crisis. Back. This sounds like a speech, anyway. Yes?
"There are Dreamers who are not dreamers," sez Santorum on CNN. "It's a mixed bag." Bring on Joe Kennedy.
And Blitzer called it a "strong speech." Did he mean to say, "long speech"? Again: Inviting emails from speechwriters who see things that I'm missing here. Will print everything you say, with or without attribution, as you wish.
I believe he cribbed most of the concluding sentences from President Carter's malaise speech.
Seriously, how long was this before they brought in Bill Clinton to edit it?
Bannon: "I'm coining the term 'Forrest Gumpian' for the pace of Trump's delivery. Good grief. He is using Skutniks effectively though." That's speechwriting talk.
Ex-White House speechwriter pal: "Who thought it was a good idea to let Trump deliver what's looking like a 90-minute speech?"
And why are we keeping the detention facilities open in Gitmo? Cuz safety.
A familiar angle.
How could I be running out of orange juice?
Right-leaning speechwriting pal Shawn Bannon sez in response to my begging, am I missing something: "No. There's nothing special here. It's fine for a SOTU, but he's not breaking any new ground. If it weren't for the fact that people are so entrenched, his unifying tone might be making some difference, but I don't think anyone's being moved by this speech. He really should have taken my advice [see bottom of this post] and gone the rally route. Dems are looking particularly churlish, though, as they try to decide whether they should stand or sit for his applause lines. When this is over, he'll be able to check the box for having completed a SOTU, but I don't think he'll have made any history."
Who can't figure out if he's CJ or DJ?
Eldest sister: "He seems like an actor or a hollow man. There is no sincerity in his communication—either in the messages or in his presentation. Or he's a cypher."
"Blackhawks leading Nashville after two periods," contributes a writer friend.
A speechwriter answers my call, says I'm not missing much. ""He's using staccato to good effect. ev=-ry-word-he-says-seems-im-por-tant-to-him."
"Paid family leave. How do you like that, ladies?"
Just a smattering of applause from Democrats on infrastructure, thanks to that linguistic smothering of the infrastructure funding plan.
H.L. Mencken said of Warren Harding, "He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."
That has nothing to do with any of this. I just like it.
I can't decide if I'm glad my beloved WWII-veteran dad didn't live to see this moment. Or lonely, because I can't go to him and get the last measure of moral confirmation from a man who voted for every Republican from Dewey through Bush.
Somebody email me at writingboots at gmail dot com if you think I'm missing anything novel or rhetorically remarkable in my admitted blind hatred for this claymation nightmare.
"And why we proudly stand for the fuck you, weirdly ambivalent black people."
"And the same great American fuck you, you liberal shitheads."
Sister-in-law points out he's only looking to his left. Also, she's having heart palpitations.
He's announcing good news with his truculent face. Just as he talked about "American carnage," with glee.
What about during slavery? STOP IT, David.
Focus, Murman! You're the head of the Professional Speechwriters Association for godsakes!
If there's a pig, we fuck it.
Am I balanced so far?
Speechwriting teacher Jerry Tarver used to talk about a speaker who was so pompous that he could say "good morning," and it seemed as though he was taking credit for it.
That looked hard on Ashley.
Ryan: "Preventing the president of United States!" Two pickets to Titsburgh!
"I guess I'm looking for actual policies," says David Brooks on PBS, to which I've decamped in desperation from cable TV's nattering nabobs of nihilism. How very David Brooks. "I hate the word 'presidential' now," says another pundit on PBS. "I just hate it!"
Settling on MSNBC as default, just because when forced to choose between smugness, imbecility and disingenuousness, I choose smugness. And Brian Williams and Rachel Maddow own smugness. Bring on Michael Beschloss! He's talking about Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms." Nobody wants to hear it.
A number of people have told me they're following the SOTU only through this blog. This blog isn't designed for that! Lotta pressure, especially considering that, though the vodka is holding out, I ran out of lemonade and have had to switch to OJ.
Watching Trump move from White House to limo. The first rhetoric is visual: a dozen strictly middle-aged white male gangsters escorting the Don to that car.
After the election, I stopped watching "Morning Joe" because all those pigfuckers were having such a great time on election night. I started watching C-SPAN. Sometimes, I sleep with C-SPAN on, because it's comforting to know that hearings are still going on. I often wake up listening to uninformed jamokes call in in the mornings and watch those stoic, tender anchors maintain everyone's dignity, mine included, despite everything. Right now on C-SPAN I'm listening to a retired U.S. House sergeant-at-arms and a U.S. Senate historian emeritus talk the tradition and the ceremony of the SOTU, and feeling better, for the moment.
The singular core competency of Tucker Carlson, Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow is to appear as if they're listening while in actuality, they formulated their response 40 seconds ago. A furrowed brow is a good competency to have—I'm pretty good at it myself. It's just not a good core competency.
Just got an email from Trump Headquarters telling me I "still have time to get [my] name displayed during the President's first State of the Union Address. All he asks is that you make a contribution to show your dedication to our movement." You know, that reminds me: Friday is the early bird deadline for the 2018 Cicero Speechwriting Awards. Enter tonight!
At the opening of his coverage, Anderson Cooper just promised "two new bombshells," and I switched the channel with a yawn.
David Gergen is going big with the sideburns, and God help me, he looks cool.
Everyone is upstairs. It's just me down here, and Trump. It's like The Shining.
Is this the year "union" has to be in air quotes. As in, "The state of the 'union' is strong. [pause to wink at camera]."
A 13-year-old Chinese exchange student is staying with us. She wants to be a writer, and her mother hopes I can be helpful somehow. I have no idea how. I told her she could either watch the SOTU and participate in the live-blogging with me, or not—totally her choice. She just finished her chicken noodle soup, and she went upstairs.
MSNBC election night music triggering post-traumatic stress disorder. CNN jackass panel triggering PTSD. Kitchen table, where I live-blogged the 2016 presidential election, also triggering PTSD. Everything but the vodka, triggering PTSD.
After promising myself and others all day that I would observe this SOTU solemnly and soberly, I confessed to a speechwriter friend that I just poured myself a huge tumbler of vodka. He shot back, "I'm eating Tide pods."
Most speechwriters I corresponded and spoke with today are watching the SOTU, but glumly, grimly, gruffly. The only one who seemed truly excited about tonight was a longtime D.C. speechwriter who now lives elsewhere and doesn't have to watch it. "I'm literally NOT going to watch the speech tonight!" he said to me at least three times in the course of a 10-minute call on another subject.
The president doesn't seem terribly excited about it either—or at least he didn't as of yesterday, when The New Yorker posted a column by former President Clinton scribe and PSA pal Jeff Shesol. An excerpt:
Expectations for the speech appear to be low in the White House itself. Trump’s aides have seemed, indeed, almost indifferent to the event. Typically, a State of the Union is preceded by a ritual (if often artificial) buildup of dramatic tension. During the weeks before, rumors are circulated, strategic leaks are placed, and a proposal or two is rolled out, hinting at big things to come. The Trump White House, however, has done virtually nothing to gin up interest. On January 21st, one aide complained to Politico that the government shutdown had thrown the staff off its stride, and had put the theme and the tone of the address “in flux.” But the shutdown was over the next day—an interruption so brief that it cannot possibly account for what Jonathan Bernstein, in Bloomberg View, called “the unmistakable sound of nothing” emitted by the West Wing.
One of the clearest signs that the speech is not a priority for the President is his failure to tweet about it even once—in contrast to his insistent promotion of his “Fake News Awards” earlier this month. (“The interest in, and importance of, these awards is far greater than anyone could have anticipated!”) Trump’s decision to drag himself and eight members of his Cabinet to Davos several days before the State of the Union to tell a gathering of global leaders that “America is back” was also strange; it cost him time to refine and rehearse a speech that tens of millions of Americans will watch.
At this writing, President Trump still hasn't posted about the SOTU. Just JAY-Z.
I mentioned to my 14-year-old daughter that I'm live-blogging the State of the Union tonight. She knows the drill—and knows that I usually enjoy the process. For instance, she took this picture of me preparing to do an Obama SOTU a couple of years ago.
"That's gonna be rough," she said. "Do people expect you to say good things about the speech?"
"No, but they expect me to analyze the president's speech, rather than the president himself."
"Yeah, that's gonna be rough," she said.
Reading the Washington Post's insightful piece on President Trump as a speechwriting client. He's difficult, because "he hates the idea that anyone puts words in his mouth," says a Trump friend. "He prides himself in his lack of preparation," says longtime advisor Roger Stone. “He prides himself on the spontaneity of his remarks. In the 40 years I’ve known him, he’s eschewed any kind of prepared speech.”
Difficult, but not impossible—at least for Stephen Miller, who knows how to make Trump think he came up with the words himself. Because he did, sort of. If Ted Sorensen was JFK's "intellectual blood bank," Miller is at least President Trump's word bank. “Stephen has almost this encyclopedic memory for things the president has said—not only policy, but particular words,” former campaign communication advisor Jason Miller told the Post. “He trusts Stephen almost like he’s a catalogue of his phrases.”
So the words his speechwriter puts in Trump's mouth feel familiar to him, because they've come out of it before.
Which works well enough for Trump—but must make Miller, at high-profile moments like this, a one-man speechwriting shop.
A New York Magazine piece corroborates Miller's central role, and establishes what has struck speechwriting savants all year: That this White House kicks it old school when it comes to identifying the White House speechwriting team: In short, they don't discuss it. (Which I don't consider a bad thing, necessarily.)
Last week I published a piece I called "the speechwriter's view" of the State of the Union Address. What it really was was my own view. I asked members of the Professional Speechwriters Association for their view. Per usual, they surprised me.
“Radical idea here,” replied Shawn Bannon, a veteran corporate speechwriter who doesn’t support President Trump but leans right. “If I were advising him, I'd tell him to deliver the SOTU to Congress in writing and to deliver the speech to the masses in the biggest arena he can fill in middle America.”
The State of the Union Address was delivered in writing many times in U.S. history, of course—basically, from President Jefferson to President Wilson, and a few times since then.
“Why give half your live audience during what will likely be your most-watched speech of the year the opportunity to sit on their hands, boo or otherwise register their distaste for you on camera when you can go blow the roof off an arena packed with people who support your agenda?” Bannon asks Trump, rhetorically.
The networks will carry the speech either way, Bannon reasons. “And even if they didn't, it would be all over the internet and only strengthen his argument that the media is against him. There isn't anything he could say or any tone he could adopt that would break through the strategic decision of those on the left to simply resist his agenda at every turn, so why not freeze them out of the moment and go be yourself in front of tens of thousands of people who adore and support you?”
As President Trump has done in so many other ways, Bannon says, “he could redefine the SOTU as we know it simply by making the moment adjust to fit him instead of him trying to adjust to the moment.”
Shocked that I couldn't really find anything wrong with Bannon's idea myself—it's not as if I expect Trump to give a useful speech at the Capitol—I ran it past Stephen Krupin, a prominent Democratic speechwriter who wrote in the Obama White House.
“I don’t hate that idea,” Krupin said. “It would also align with his inaugural and its talk of returning power to you, the people.”
Krupin isn’t sure that President Trump would actually go through with it, consumed as he is with the desire “to be respected as all the other POTUSes of the last century who got their pictures taken at that rostrum.”
But if he did, Krupin wouldn’t lament the blowing up of what has always been a problematic and fraught ritual for speechwriters. “Of all the institutions he’s threatened, the SOTU is the least consequential. So go for it.”
Now that I think of it, it makes sense that speechwriters would feel this way. They have been looking to shake the cobwebs off the SOTU for years. So while they have native reservations about a president who flouts so many of the rhetorical rules they get paid to observe and communication laws they believe are sacrosanct—the SOTU seems to be one part of the swamp they don’t mind draining.
And the one, it seems, that the president isn't interested in messing with.
I'll be watching tonight—and live blogging right here, in case you need company.