All times ET.
Don’t mind me, I hate SOTU speeches. In fact, I hate most speeches, in general. People ask me how many speeches I read every month, as editor of Vital Speeches of the Day. I say, “Do you mean, how many speeches do I read the first couple of pages of, every month?” Hating most speeches is what allows me to choose eight or 10 notable ones given all over the world in a single month, to publish.
Speeches should not be as boring as they are, as frequently as they are. But they are—because people are as boring as they are, and times are as boring as they are.
But this isn’t a boring time. These shouldn’t be boring speeches. But generally, these were.
Not the end of the world.
Speaking of which, I’m checking once more, to see if Kyiv has fallen.
No, it hasn’t.
Republican response, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds. Focusing on domestic affairs, says Biden is taking us back to 1970s inflation, crime, and Cold War. Biden focused on “political correctness rather than military readiness.” Democrats’ stimulus spending created inflation. (Honest question, wasn’t most of that spending from the Trump administration?) Democrats call inflation a “quote, high class problem.” Which Democrats? Liberal wokeness. Hypocrisy. Weakness. (And also tyranny!) This is yet another ineffective litany that neither persuades the opposition, nor inspires or ennobles the base. Again: A speech has to feel like it could have been delivered by only this person, at this moment in time. This speech could have been delivered by any Republican, and with an adjustment of language and circumstances, at just about any time in the last 30 years.
“It was a Churchillian speech that was more ‘church’ than ‘chill.'” When did you put that in your notes, David Axelrod? Yesterday?
A speech like this is a terribly unique opportunity, that needs to be taken fully advantage of—not by blurting out lots of things, but by saying in as powerful way as possible one thing that the whole society will take in at once, and that no one will ever forget. This speech mostly beaded on the public brain, like most SOTUs do. Not the end of the world, just a missed opportunity.
A politically conservative corporate speechwriter pal writes on Facebook: “With this long list of every policy idea he’s ever heard, I’m afraid to say President Biden has swept all of the potential rhetorical impact of his opening remarks about Ukraine under the rug. This should have and could have been a full-throated defense of liberty and self-determination … a complete and utter rebuke of tyranny and aggression … a restatement of our values and a commitment to support those who would fight with their lives for those same values a half a world away. And that’s all this needed to be. All the rest of this … plans upon plans without details … has just been noise.”
Tapper, tepid: “Considering his … speaking talents, and challenges, it was a fairly solid performance.”
A Biden-sympathetic speechwriter texts, “He stuck the landing! (Thank God.)”
A progressive pal tells me that contrary to what I’m saying, this speech is “a progressive litany, not a liberal (Clinton/Obama) one.” As a listener to a speech, I tell him, it sounds exactly the same.
23 million Americans in recovery from addiction. That’s a pretty interesting statistic. That’s actually a pretty inspiring statistic.
Taking a break from this Clinton/Obama/Biden speech to check to see if Kyiv has fallen. No, it hasn’t.
From a speechwriter pal, a few minutes ago:
I’ve been simultaneously sober in my mind and slurring my words. It’s fucking frustrating. It’s also impossible for listeners to ignore.
The thing is, no one believes that history will tell us we saved ourselves with a 39-point plan—even if every single point on the plan makes perfect logical sense. A speech has to be about not 39 things, not 25 things, not 10 things, not three things, but one thing. Yes, even a State of the Union speech—and especially right now. What’s the one thing (not “four commonsense steps”!) that this speech is about, that this moment is about. I know it’s a terrible rhetorical problem, a nasty battle against political convention. But at this terrible moment in world history, this speech should have been much more profoundly rewritten, and this old-time policy list should have been scrapped.
Ah, this is starting to sound like every other Democratic SOTU I’ve ever heard. Plans and programs, programs and plans. If you have a progressive vision, let’s hear that vision—what the country looks like to travel in and feels like to live in—and to work in, and to raise a family in, and build communities in, for Americans who work hard and love one another. More holistic, bigger picture, longer term. “Confirm my nominees for the Federal Reserve”?
Pal Tony worries, “Our jack-in-the-box Vice President is going to wear poor old Nancy out.”
The speech impediment is a distracting problem, and it’s getting way worse; I didn’t even remember noticing it when Biden wiped the floor with Paul Ryan in that debate in 2012.
A CEO as a Skutnik! The times they are a changin’. But he is right about this Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger. This really is a pretty dramatic and even patriotic story.
Nobody cares about the number of miles of bridges in disrepair because nobody knows the number of miles of bridges in general. Might as well be telling us how many chairs you could lie on end to get to the moon, as a speechwriter pal says. 10,000 new jobs. Is that a lot? If you have to do them all yourself, I guess it is. (I’ve had days like that.)
“We’re done talking about infrastructure weeks. We’re talking about infrastructure decades.”
“We’re going to be okay.” A leader, Napoleon once said, is a dealer in hope. But dealers needs buyers, too. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
This is an opening rhetorical avalanche, mostly logos.
My nephew Danny texts: “A man who drinks his way through the last administration and chooses sobriety for this one is no hero in my book.”
I didn’t say, “as a judge.”
Why does this look about as well attended as a Washington Wizards game? Social distancing, or antisocial distancing?
Longtime speechwriter pal Randy Lee asks, “Have you heard if there will be any Lenny Skutniks there? It’s entirely possible he’ll want to focus on the many Ukrainian heroes.” (Lenny Skutnik being the first average American that President Reagan called out from the gallery—he had saved a woman from drowning in the Potomac River just days before the SOTU.)
Former Reagan speechwriter Aram Bakshian has something to say about that, too—by way of saying something about himself.
“Finally, President Biden should close with the ‘heroes in the gallery’ device that has been used by every president since Ronald Reagan (when I wrote it into his 1983 State of the Union Address).”
One of the last times the “Skutnik,” as speechwriters now call it, was used, was when President Trump called out that humble American’s American, Rush Limbaugh.
We’ll see what happens, but I’m thinking this speech is as much like the Pearl Harbor speech than like a SOTU, and that speech would have been a weird one to introduce a Skutnik.
I think the hero for Biden to focus on tonight and in detail is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is giving Churchill a run for his money, making his own translators weep. Not only saying, but living Churchill’s crushing line: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
Here’s a SOTU preview I can get behind. From a member of the Washington Speechwriters Roundtable:
I want to feel something other than impotence, frustration, and rage. Come on, Joe, bring the shades and give me some raw Churchillian emotion tonight! Oh and please say the word “fuck.” After the last six years, we need to hear that.
I just want him to say, “I don’t know who this Brandon guy is, but my name is Joe Biden. I’m the President of the United States, and I’m here to say to Putin and anyone else who wants to challenge democracy, the world is sick of your shit.” God, I so want to write this speech. I’d channel something from “Their Finest Hour,” “Fight Them on the Beaches,” and FDR’s “Great Arsenal of Democracy.” … My fingers are twitching.
Former White House speechwriters like to pregame the State of the Union Address by publishing pieces in the media about what they think the President should say. I’ve never been a big fan of the form, because the President usually says plenty, without our having to spend more time reading a speechwriter’s fantasy of what he should say. Nevertheless, my buddy, former Al Gore speechwriter Bob Lehrman, had such a piece in The Hill yesterday.
And another correspondent, former Reagan speechwriter (and noted speechwriting clothes horse) Aram Bakshian, had a preview in The Daily Mail, in which he asked, in the most objective, professionally analytical terms, “Can this beleaguered, befogged old political hack somehow rise to the occasion Tuesday night and talk his way out of the mess he has contributed so much to making?”
I’ve always said good things about Reagan’s speechwriters and been persuaded and even touched by their universal affection for the Gipper. (Such relationships aren’t universal, BTW. Try to get anyone who worked for Carter to say a good word about that experience.)
But the older they get, the more these former Reagan scribes fail to demonstrate, themselves, the optimistic, cheerful, classy geniality they always said they admired in their boss. More from Bakshian:
“Unfortunately, President Biden—fragile, creaky, cranky and increasingly disoriented, and with no consistent core message or convictions—is everything Ronald Reagan wasn’t and nothing that he was.”
So that’s how Reagan speechwriter Aram Bakshian chose to use whatever credibility he has as a speechwriter who’s been retired for about 35 years. He chose to write that, in a foreign newspaper, just before the president of his nation prepared to deliver the SOTU speech and the Pearl Harbor speech, all rolled up in one.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of this in former Reagan scribes, since Trump was elected, and maybe before.
Am I getting old and boring, or are State of the Union Addresses getting less fun than they were, back when I used to laugh at them like a teenager laughing at the grown-ups. Acting like this guy, on Saturday Night Live. As my little sister would have said when she was little: “Are me a grown-up now?”
But then came Trump. Then came COVID. Then came Ukraine.
Suddenly my old SOTU set-up doesn’t seem appropriate anymore.
No, I gotta keep my head on for this one. But you? Do what you need to do.
I’ll take the controls sometime before 8:00 Eastern.
james edward green says
You have gone back to using Eastern time. Why? Did someone complain?
David Murray says
No, no one complained, Jim—and I love your fierceness on this, and have been inspired by it! It’s just that much of my speechwriting audience is in D.C., and to them, Central Time is about as familiar as Acre Time, in South America. Also, the speech is taking place in the Eastern Time Zone. Don’t worry, in the heat of the moment, I’ll start posting Central Time times anyway, and confuse everybody but you.
james edward green says
Even I have mellowed on this. Don’t tell anyone, but I actually now read the New York Times.
Randy Lee says
Have you heard if there will be any Lenny Skutniks there? It’s entirely possible he’ll want to focus on the many Ukrainian heroes.
Shawn Bannon says
Your 9:46 update nails it.