By Erika Lovley
January 21, 2011
President Bill Clinton would not stop talking. That’s all Christine Todd Whitman could think about as she anxiously awaited her big national moment — the official response to the State of the Union address. “He gave his regular speech and then kept going,” Whitman said. “I was sitting there saying, ‘Now what do I say; he’s said everything.’ I started to get quite nervous.” The response speech is one of the more daunting spotlight moments for an up-and-coming politician. Delivered directly after the president’s live address to the full Congress, Cabinet and Supreme Court, and a national TV audience, the response has a reputation for being a second-class act that is awkwardly staged and poorly executed. In 2006, Gov. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) was criticized for not hitting Republicans hard enough. In 2008, Kathleen Sebelius, then the Democratic governor of Kansas, was lampooned as dreadfully boring. In 2009, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, suffered in the media for weeks after delivering a speech that sounded largely narrated and began as he awkwardly trotted into the camera’s view. “For all his experience in public life, he had never done anything quite like that and did not seem comfortable,” said David Kusnet, a former chief speechwriter for Clinton. “Bobby Jindal is only the latest victim of this speech,” said West Wing Writers founding partner Jeff Shesol, who served as a deputy chief of speechwriting for Clinton. “It’s a dog of a speech that diminishes almost anyone who gives it. It is apparently an honor, but it may feel to the speech-giver like some form of divine punishment.” Those chosen by leaders of the opposing party to give the speech are usually the up-and-coming face of the party. Kaine gave the speech soon after taking office, having won a tight gubernatorial race in a swing state. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) did so as a promising freshman — and he was one of the few in recent years who really nailed it, getting rave reviews for articulating the Democratic alternative to an unpopular President George W. Bush. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) delivered a joint speech in 2005, kick-starting a campaign season in which Democrats would take back Congress. But while the speeches are frequently touted as kingmakers, they are more often known for being notoriously bland and significantly less impressive than the main event — largely because of the formalities required when following the president.