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State Of The Union Speechwriter On What To Expect For Trump's Address


President Trump delivers his first official State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday. It's a tradition that dates back to the earliest days of the republic. George Washington delivered the first in writing. But since then, the speech has been used to describe and make the case for the president's agenda. To that end, advocates for one view over another have traditionally used the speech to fight for issues to get top billing. Well, that was then. This is now. Things are very different these days - not the least being the president's practice of taking his policy ideas directly to the public through Twitter.

We wanted to know a bit about how the process has changed and what it was like before, so we've called Jennifer Grossman. She's a former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush. She's now the CEO of The Atlas Society. That's a libertarian think tank. And she's with us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Jennifer Grossman, thanks so much for speaking to us.

JENNIFER GROSSMAN: Delighted to be here.

MARTIN: So first, could you just tell us how the Bush administration - the first Bush administration - viewed this speech? Like, what was it like for you as a speechwriter?

GROSSMAN: Well, they took it very seriously. And I think because of that, it was a place where a lot of policy turf wars got fought out because that speech was going to be used as an agenda for the rest of the year. So it was never a eloquent speech. It was never soaring rhetoric, but it was important in terms of what they were going to be doing for the year ahead and who had the most influence within the White House.

So you know, the speechwriters - we were very idealistic, and I, in particular, was always a fan of school choice. And so we would put in school choice. But Lamar Alexander, who was the secretary of education, would take it out. And we'd put it back in, and he'd take it out. And he would say, you know what? I'm going to call the President. And they're like, OK, call the president, you know?

MARTIN: Well, even just putting the substance aside, this president communicates directly with the public all the time. So in that context, does this speech still matter as much?

GROSSMAN: No. No, it doesn't. I mean, it will be evaporating as quickly as morning dew. It doesn't matter to his base. I don't think his base will be watching or listening to the speech. They will be following his Twitter feed, whatever he says the speech was about. That's what their reality will be.

MARTIN: How will you be listening to this speech?

GROSSMAN: I think it will be very, very significant to see which themes he chooses to emphasize. But I also think that we watch it for the pageantry. It's not just what the president says. It's not just how he delivers it. It's how he walks into the room, how people interact with him. So we watch it for things like that as well.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I wanted to ask - I'm wondering - how you feel isn't quite right - yeah, I do want to know how you feel about the effect that the president has had on this particular form of public discourse. What do you think about that? What impact do you think he's had on something that you've - care a lot about, which is words and the how - the way we communicate, particularly political ideas, to each other?

GROSSMAN: Well, the bad side, the down side is that politics does require trust, right? It requires trust between parties, and that we also need a certain amount of predictability. You need to have some sense of things are going to happen the way that they were promised to happen. So I think to that extent, it's been a detriment. On the other hand, I think that we do crave authenticity with the people that are representing us.

And so I think that although it's been undisciplined and often misogynistic and vulgar - all bad things - I think that it also has allowed people to really see the real him and make their decisions. And so I think that that is good - that we are actually seeing who this person really is and that we can make our own judgments based on what we can directly see from his communications.

MARTIN: That's Jennifer Grossman. She was a speechwriter for George H.W. Bush - President George H.W. Bush. She currently serves as a CEO of The Atlas Society. That's a libertarian think tank that promotes the writings and the thinking of Ayn Rand. Jennifer Grossman, thanks so much for speaking with us.

GROSSMAN: It was a pleasure. Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.