Biden's State of the Union Prep: No Acronyms and Tricks to Conquer a Stutter

  • In Politics
  • 2023-02-07 13:10:29Z
  • By The New York Times
President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address to Congress at the Capitol in Washington on March 1, 2022.
President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address to Congress at the Capitol in Washington on March 1, 2022.  

WASHINGTON - As President Joe Biden prepared to deliver one of the biggest speeches of his presidency, he met with a close group of aides at the White House and read drafts aloud from top to bottom. He practiced in front of teleprompters at Camp David, making sure the language was relatable and clear.

And, in quiet moments ahead of the State of the Union address Tuesday evening, he marked up his speech with subtle lines and dashes that he has long used as a signal to take a breath, pause between his words or steer through a tricky transition.

Biden is the first modern president to have a stutter, which he has navigated since childhood and still speaks of in emotional terms. According to seven current and former aides who have helped Biden prepare for high-profile speeches throughout his career, the president's shorthand will help him as he delivers an hourlong speech in which he will have to make an emphatic case for his legislative achievements and urge Republicans and Democrats to work together.

The main ideas in the speech will be true to the themes Biden has espoused throughout his career: working together, asserting America's leadership in the world, and giving the working and middle classes a leg up - a continuation of the "bottom up, middle out" philosophy he has honed over his past half-century in politics.

"This is a guy who has been remarkably consistent over a very long career both in the values he brings to the job and the way he articulates those values," said Jeff Nussbaum, a former Biden White House speechwriter. "When you're writing for Joe Biden, you're a session musician for a band that has already released 20 albums."

But, Nussbaum added, there was a reason behind the consistency, which he said had led the president's list of legislative victories: "Joe Biden has to say the same thing a thousand times before the world catches up to him."

Preparations for Biden's State of the Union speeches begin weeks in advance. Several aides described a process in which the president demands that sentences be written clearly - no acronyms! - and illustrate his legislative accomplishments in terms real people can understand. He spends weeks working on each speech with his writers, reading over and over again, top to bottom, and out loud.

At Camp David this past weekend, the group assisting Biden in final preparations included members of his inner circle: Mike Donilon, Bruce Reed, Anita Dunn and Steven Ricchetti, as well as Vinay Reddy, chief White House speechwriter, and historian Jon Meacham, who is called upon to add historical heft, usually toward the end of the proceedings.

But Donilon, Reed and Reddy - along with Biden - are the early engines of the process, according to several White House officials. Early outlines began around November. (In true Biden inner-circle fashion, all four declined to comment.)

Reed, the White House deputy chief of staff, has helped guide policy-related additions to the speech. A native Idahoan whose speech-writing career stretches back to Al Gore's Senate campaign, he was described as a gifted writer by a former colleague. Reed, 62, ran Biden's vice presidential office from 2011-13 and led President Bill Clinton's Domestic Policy Council. Some of Biden's loftier turns of phrase come from Reed.

Donilon, 64, is often credited as the aide who has the best understanding of Biden's voice, and of the president's interest in constantly returning to his humble roots. It was Donilon who helped shape Biden's 2020 campaign message - a fight for the soul of the nation. David Axelrod, President Barack Obama's chief strategist, praised Donilon's talent and called him "the keeper of the narrative" when Biden elevated Donilon to a senior adviser role.

According to several current and former officials, Reddy is the aide who is tasked with writing early drafts, putting everybody's thoughts down on paper and then writing a clear final draft that pleases everyone in the room - no easy feat, according to several of his former colleagues. Reddy, 44, was hired during Biden's vice presidency. He went on to work for Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, before rejoining the Biden 2020 campaign. Reddy is the first Asian American to serve as the White House director of speech writing.

If a line does not sound to Biden like something he would say, he will flatly say so, and then offer thoughts about how to proceed. One former speechwriter said this phase is an exercise in trying to capture Biden's extemporaneous thoughts and put them down on the page.

Biden does not make notations to navigate his stutter for every speech, but he has done so for some of his more consequential addresses and meetings with foreign leaders in the Oval Office. He has remarked to a former aide that one of the hardest things for a stutterer to do is deliver remarks while standing up - which, that person pointed out, is his day job. Others say it looks as though Biden is marking up a piece of music as he prepares.

Biden often frames his struggle with his stutter in the past tense, but he has often suggested that his earliest years - in which he was bullied by classmates and a teacher, until his mother stepped in - were formative in shaping the resilient and empathetic political brand that won him the presidency at age 77.

"I learned so much from having to deal with stuttering," Biden said in a 2016 speech at an American Institute for Stuttering gala. "It gave me insight into other people's pain."

When Biden met a young boy named Brayden Harrington in a rope line on the 2020 campaign trail, Biden was told that the boy had a stutter and promptly invited him backstage to chat. Biden recommended that Brayden read a book by one of his favorite Irish poets, William Butler Yeats, to help him envision speech like a poem. He also showed him the notes he used for the day's speech.

"After every couple of lines or words, he would draw a line straight down, a blank space between words, and that would indicate for him to take a breath," Brayden, 15, said in an interview. He added that when they first met, Biden "looked me right in the eyes and said, 'Aw, man, your imperfections are your gifts.'"

As president, Biden frequently describes his stutter as part of a painful past to which he will not return. "It cannot define you. It will not define you. Period," he said at a November campaign event in California after he saw a person in the audience holding up a sign that said, "Thank you for having a stutter."

Like most White House traditions, the State of the Union address takes on the personality of the man giving the speech. So do the preparations.

Most modern presidents make notes on their significant speeches. President Ronald Reagan made "hash marks" to divide his speeches into 30-second chunks. President George W. Bush, who was not known as a strong public speaker, practiced with small notecards and underlined words for emphasis. President Barack Obama worked with writers - including one he had christened with a lofty nickname, "Hemingway" - and then rewrote the entire speech in his own hand. President Donald Trump claimed that he wrote all of his speeches (he did not) and then scribbled edits with a Sharpie.

In the Biden White House, once a serviceable State of the Union draft has been created - after several rounds of preparation between Biden and his team - a larger group of aides is pulled into the process. Last year, a video released by the White House showed several of Biden's closest aides - including Dunn; Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director; and Jen Psaki, the former White House press secretary - reviewing the material and taking notes.

Another shot showed Biden sitting across from Donilon during a prep session and, later, Biden practicing from a lectern in the State Dining Room. He stood in front of a large portrait of President Abraham Lincoln and read from a teleprompter, with several cups of coffee placed nearby.

As he prepared to deliver his speech last March, Biden was reading through a final draft of the address up until shortly before he delivered the remarks, two people familiar with the timeline said. His final shorthand notes were not transferred over to his teleprompters, those people said.

Instead, Biden relied on his memory and the draft in front of him.

© 2023 The New York Times Company


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