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.
“I’m not going to ask for equal time,” Whitman joked after Clinton finally wrapped up his speech, forcing her to cut her own speech short. Whitman had just spent several panicked moments before the speech debating with her staff — should she make a joke? “I said, do you think it’s rude? I didn’t want to be rude to the president, but I felt like I had to acknowledge the amount of time he had used,” she said. “I opened with that, and it broke the ice.” “It’s probably one of the toughest speaking assignments in American politics because you’re following the president at the moment when the president looks most presidential and you don’t really know what you’re supposed to say first,” Kusnet said. Experts point to a plethora of problems that plague the rebuttals: bad staging, the speakers’ lack of confidence in using teleprompters and politicians’ giving performances rather than heart-felt communication. The speeches are often overmanaged by party operatives and laced with clichés. In recent years, speakers have experimented, giving the speeches before live audiences or to an empty room. Whitman was the first to experiment with a live audience, giving her speech in the chamber of the New Jersey Assembly. Last year, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell gave his speech to a full room in the Virginia House of Delegates, a staging move that some experts criticized, saying it looked like McDonnell was trying to upstage the president — even as he stood in the smaller Richmond chamber. “It’s an awful spectacle when they try to look and sound like the president,” said Shesol. “McDonnell looked and sounded very small town, small budget after seeing the president address Congress.” Jindal, who was rebutting President Barack Obama’s first speech before a joint session of Congress, spent a large chunk of his speech retelling a story from his childhood and attacking the Democrats — a sign he was trying to introduce himself to the nation as a potential presidential candidate. But Jindal, who is known for his rapid-fire speaking style and command of wonky policy facts, instead tried to stage himself as a slower-speaking, folksy Southern politician. It didn’t work. “With Jindal, you had this self-promotional aspect where he was running through his stock biography. He was self-consciously introducing himself to America,” Shesol said. In some cases, speakers have very little time to prepare. Kaine had barely been in office a few weeks when Democratic Party leaders asked him to give the speech. The governor had done well among independent voters in what had been a red state, which leadership wanted to project as a nationwide goal for the party in the 2006 midterms.
“We got the call, and the first couple weeks of the administration we were still finding our sea legs,” said Kaine chief of staff Larry Roberts, who then served as counselor to the governor. Kaine and House leadership gave a few pointers to his team, which worked around the clock, going through no more than two or three drafts. Kaine, who rarely spoke from prepared text and preferred to speak from outlines, had to practice using a teleprompter. “He only had time to run through it a couple of times before going live,” Roberts said. “I kept thinking, when that red light goes on, millions of people will be on the other end of that camera,” Roberts said. In the end, the results were mixed. Some Democrats complained the speech was not hard-hitting enough against Bush. But Roberts said that was never Kaine’s goal for the speech. Instead, he strove to reach the American voter, a task he felt was completed when Democrats took the House and Senate in 2006. Webb’s speech may be one of the few that offer a formula for success. He delivered a rebuttal on the war in Iraq and domestic issues without making it sound like a partisan attack on Bush. “It wouldn’t be possible in this short amount of time to rebut the president’s message, nor would it be useful,” Webb said, as he sat in a chair, looking directly into the camera with a serious, almost angry expression on his face. Part of Webb’s success, experts say, is that he wrote the speech himself, crafting it in the privacy of his Arlington office. Revisions by party leaders were minimal. “Having spent so much of his life as a writer, Sen. Webb focused his State of the Union response on two major themes: the need to restore economic fairness for all Americans and a call for responsible leadership from the president when he puts our troops in harm’s way. Sen. Webb put these themes squarely before the American people in his speech,” said his spokesman, Will Jenkins. “The speaker should see himself as a channel for whatever you’re feeling: frustration, anger, passion. That’s why Jim Webb was so memorable,” said Matt Latimer, a former speechwriter for Bush. “Just sit in a chair. Don’t be gimmicky; just talk to the American people.” Webb is very much an anomaly, experts and politicians say. In the end, the speaker has to accept the speech as it is: an honorable second-class act that probably won’t ruin an entire career. “I don’t think people listen to these speeches much,” Whitman said. “Frankly, at the end of the day, I think everyone is asleep.”