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Organizing State of Union speeches a difficult task for speech writers

WASHINGTON - Presidents usually are seen reading their State of the Union addresses with ease; however, the people who put them together go through a lot of stress.

With less than six hours to this year's State of the Union address by President Barack Obama, four former presidential speech writers said Tuesday the most difficult aspect of writing a State of the Union speech is organizing it. They said it is the only speech in which the president tries to include as many topics as possible.

Jeff Shesol, a speech writer for President Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2000, said it is difficult to include bits of everything interest groups and administration officials want him to say.

"You are organizing the State of the Union as much as you are writing it. The challenge is to try to impose some order into this and to bring order out of chaos," he said.

Shesol said this was when he received calls from people he least expected to hear from, including Cabinet secretaries asking him to include policies they thought were very important.

"You're working with people you've never heard from before, and suddenly, they are calling you because you are their line into the process," he said.

Adam Frankel, a speech writer during Obama's first term, said it is a difficult speech to put together.

"In the State of the Union, you're covering so much ground that figuring out the structure that actually makes sense to tell the story in the right way is one of the biggest challenges," he said.

John McConnell, a speechwriter for President George W. Bush during his eight-year tenure, said the president gives more than 500 speeches in a year and it is therefore important not to be complacent. McConnell said it is also important to learn over time how the president likes to start and end his speeches and the kinds of stories he likes to tell.

Reach reporter Eddie Ameh at or 202-326-9868.