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Crafting A State Of The Union Speech

By CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller.

When President Bush enters the chamber of the House of Representatives tomorrow evening, he'll be delivering his ninth speech to a Joint Session of Congress, and his seventh and probably final State of the Union Address.

Planning for it began in early December at one of the president's frequent meetings with his speechwriting team.

"Well, his standard marching order is that you better write a good speech," says Bill McGurn, chief White House speechwriter.

Actually, it was late spring or early summer that Mr. Bush told his wordsmiths that he wanted to give a speech at some point about his philosophy of governing.

But they never got around to it. So during their planning meetings last month for the State of the Union, they decided to make it part of tomorrow's address.

"You'll be hearing about his governing philosophy and how it applies to the different policies that he's put in place and how it drives his agenda for his final year in office," says Mark Thiessen, who'll soon be taking over McGurn's job as chief speechwriter.

In an interview in their West Wing offices, three of the White House speechwriters offered an insider's account about their jobs and about writing this year's State of the Union.

"Your job as a speechwriter is to write the speech the president would have written himself if he had 80 hours to sit in front of a computer," Thiessen says.

The team had its first outline of the speech in the president's hands before Christmas. But the usual preparation time this year was interrupted this month by Mr. Bush's nine-day Mideast trip - where his big speech was delivered in Abu Dhabi. He sounded a call for democracy even as he visited Arab states where democracy is a rare commodity.

"The moment after he did that speech," McGurn recalls, "he doesn't come out and say 'Hey - that was great.' He says 'Bill - where's my State of the Union?'"

From back in Washington, Thiessen and fellow speechwriter Chris Michel finished the first draft and relayed it to Mr. Bush while he was still overseas.

"The day he got back, despite the jet lag and everything else, we were meeting with him first thing in the morning to go over the draft," says Michel. "Every day, twice a day sometimes, we've been meeting and we've been calling with ideas and editing."

When it comes to presidential speeches, the writers regard the commander-in-chief as the editor-in-chief.

"I think the biggest misimpression is that you can just write something and the president will read it and not notice it, not change it, not react violently to it if he disagrees," says McGurn.

In fact, Thiessen calls President Bush "the toughest editor I think any of us has ever had."

"He's strict. He knows what he wants to say. He knows how he wants to say it."

And though the president often jokes about his shortcomings with the English language, his writers have to master his style and manner of speaking.

"I hear his voice and meter in my head when I'm getting dressed in the morning, when I'm eating my cereal, when I'm having lunch," says Thiessen. "And in the shower, I hear his voice and meter all the time."

You'd think that in crafting a speech as important as the State of the Union, the writers would anguish over crafting just the right phrase or sentence that will be remembered for years to come. But McGurn says that's not the case.

"I think the way to have a phrase stand out is to do your job right, and it's really history or something will show that it works."

But the writers will be listening carefully to how their work is received in the House chamber.

"You have your suspicions as to what's going to work and what's not. And what's going to evoke applause and what'll evoke what kind of reactions," says Thiessen.

Yet he says not all writers are anxious to see the reaction to their work.

"I know Tony Dolan, who was Ronald Reagan's chief speechwriter, never went to the State of the Union. He couldn't bear to watch."

But Mr. Bush's team intends to be there.

"Yes, we'll be there," says Thiessen. "We're all courageous enough to go and watch the final address."