Why the State of the Union Is So Long—and Why No One Can Fix It

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Nobody loves workmanlike laundry lists, but four former presidential speechwriters say there's little hope for shorter speeches any time soon.

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Four former presidential speechwriters on Tuesday discussed their efforts to reign in recent State of the Union addresses, which have become some of the longest and most unwieldy speeches presidents give, as well as the most widely-watched. But structural forces within the White House, they predicted, will most likely continue to conspire to turn the annual laying out of presidential priorities into mammoth, workmanlike laundry lists, no matter who resides in the Oval Office.

Just ask Jeff Shesol, now a partner at the West Wing Writers Group. When he came to the White House in 1998, he had an idea about streamlining the speeches, which had already grown to gargantuan new lengths under President Clinton.

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"When I had just gotten there, to the White House, and I was really full of what I thought were fresh ideas, I wrote a memo arguing for a tightly thematic approach to the State of the Union and to finally reject the laundry list, make an argument for something, and let a lot of other stuff fall by the wayside," he recalled at a panel Tuesday morning organized by the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington and moderated by the Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart.

"I made my case in a couple page memo and I was told, essentially: 'You're adorable.'" Shesol said.

"I got to work like everybody else on filling out the laundry list."

The net result: One of the two State of the Unions he worked on wound up being the longest ever given, breaking Clinton's previous record-setting performance.

But even when they are not Clintonesque, State of the Unions have been getting longer over the past three decades. Obama's have been, on average, longer than George W. Bush's, which were longer than his father's, which were longer then those of Ronald Reagan. (Wonkblog lays out the details in a nice graphic here.)

State of the Unions are baggy in part because they have to sync up with the president's budget priorities, and partly because they are not so much written as organized, Shesol said. Observed Don Baer, worldwide chair and CEO of Burson-Marsteller and Clinton's former top speechwriter, speechwriters are "at best, stewards for a process" when it comes to the State of the Union -- which is "a mission statement and the setting out of an agenda for the entire presidency, and entire government, at least for a year ahead, and sometimes more than that." They don't decide what's in and what's out and they are lobbied constantly by Cabinet secretaries, interest groups, and constituencies within the government to add a reference to pet programs or name-check specific plans, the speechwriters agreed. The helpful phrase to remember, said former George W. Bush speechwriter John McConnell, is the truthful, "I promise this will receive consideration."

But the final decisions about what goes into a State of the Union are often made by the chief of staff, the communications director, a chief counselor, or the president himself -- and not by the speechwriter.

That kind of massive group process militates against short speeches. "Everyone starts out thinking it's going to be really short and they're going to change the tradition of these things running on and on," said Adam Frankel, a former speechwriter for President Obama, now executive director of Digital Promise. "And then inevitably, over the course of the process, they tend to be a certain length."

And then there's the unpredictable factor of a president who likes to riff.

"In 1995, which was the first year I when was chief speechwriter and I had to manage this process -- it was an unusual year," Baer said. "You remember, Newt Gingrich and the Republicans had taken Congress, there was a fair amount of uncertainty within the White House and among the Democrats about what President Clinton's message and sort of themes were going to be. That uncertainty held right up through the day of the speech."

The 89-minute speech that resulted was never supposed to be that long. "It was written at 5,800 words and, based on the pace that we knew President Clinton delivered his speeches, including applause, that meant it would have ended at 58 minutes. But when he got up to give the speech, because it was going so well, he added enough words for the full text to be 9,200 words, which means it came in -- he was speaking speaking faster toward the end -- it came in at 89 minutes," Baer said.

"I thought that was a little bit of an ignominious mark on my record. It was the longest presidential State of the Union in history -- until the year 2000, when I was only marginally involved, and he went 92 minutes. So I felt better about that."

Added Shesol: "We hold together this pair of records -- that Don's was the longest in words, and one I participated in, one of the ones of the I participated in, was the longest in minutes -- [Clinton] slowed down and enjoyed it."

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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