Words that may etch Obama's final term

Last updated 09:06 12/02/2013
Barack Obama
GREAT ORATOR: Barack Obama.

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Cody Keenan haunts the basement of the West Wing at all hours, labouring over the State of the Union address while cloaked in a black pullover that a friend jokes is his ''good luck fleece''.

So Keenan hopes.

The pressure is on the ruddy 32-year-old - the nationally televised address on Tuesday will be his first major effort since Barack Obama named him as chief White House speechwriter.

In the small club of past presidential speechwriters, the State of the Union is known as a notoriously miserable task. It's also a peculiar puzzle, as much policy document as speech, but dressed up with prime time-worthy prose. When successful, it can set a tone, seize a moment or shift a debate. As often as not, it is forgettable, dull, or memorable only for mishaps.

Speechwriters often begin working on the address months in advance. Interest groups, aides, agencies and first ladies have been known to want their way with it and their words in it. So it was hardly astonishing that Keenan was in his lucky sweater as dawn broke last week. A colleague noted his early arrival, and Keenan motioned to his black leather couch. ''I slept there,'' he said.

Former White House speechwriters describe the stressful build-up to the State of the Union with words such as ''contentious'' and ''death march''.

Raymond Price, a speechwriter for Richard Nixon, wrote the first draft of the 1970 address in a sleepless, hallucinatory, three-day binge powered by ''greenies'', amphetamines prescribed by the White House doctor, Price told Robert Schlesinger, who wrote White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters. Nixon tore the draft apart.

Former speechwriters attribute the difficulty to the combination of unusual elements: multiple audiences, a high-profile time slot, broad topics and competing interests.

''Everybody wants their program, their project. You get rooms full of suggestions, memos from cabinet departments you didn't even know existed,'' said Joshua Gilder, a senior Reagan speechwriter. ''They have legitimate reason for trying, but as a speechwriter you have to weigh that against the need for the president to give a coherent message and not put everybody to sleep.''

Gilder is speaking literally. State of the Union addresses are delivered at 9pm Eastern time and have tended to increase in length over the years.

In 1995, Bill Clinton's speech was 5800 words, less than an hour in delivery, former speechwriter Don Baer said. When the president finished improvising, it clocked in at 9200 words and an hour and 24 minutes - then a State of the Union record. (Clinton spoke four minutes longer in his final address.)

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President Obama has strong opinions about word choices, cadence and emphasis, said his message guru David Axelrod.

Keenan worked closely with the President on remarks offered in Tucson and Newtown, Connecticut, as the nation mourned after mass shootings. ''Cody's someone who has collaborated with the President on some of his most memorable work,'' said David Plouffe, a longtime presidential adviser.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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