The context of Biden’s State of the Union is loopy. But it won’t be the craziest.


Inside the White House, there was no sense that he would skip that stage. Clinton and his workers noticed the State of the Union handle as a solution to present the American folks that the scandal wasn’t stopping them from specializing in the coverage they usually felt voters had his again; Clinton’s approval rating was sitting at 69 %. The United States was working a funds surplus of more than $70 billion, and for the first time since 1934, the incumbent president’s social gathering had added House seats in the midterm elections.

Then-White House chief of workers John Podesta created a line of demarcation for the workers between the impeachment and authorities work in order that workers may focus. “Do your job. If you’re on the Domestic Policy Council, do domestic policy, if you’re on the Economic Policy Council do economic policy,” Paul Begala, then a counselor to Clinton and one of the few who did each, instructed POLITICO.

Just after 9 p.m. on Jan. 19, 1999, Clinton walked out to the House chamber, greeted by Vice President Al Gore and the newly sworn in Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, and delivered one of the most memorable State of the Unions of all time — a 77-minute handle that didn’t point out impeachment as soon as however grew to become memorialized in political historical past for his name to protect and fund Social Security.

What follows is the recollections from some of the key gamers in the Clinton White House on how that speech, and that second in historical past, got here collectively.

MICHAEL WALDMAN, director of speech writing, 1995-1999: In November, we despatched him memos proposing what he ought to speak about and themes.

JEFF SHESOL, speechwriter, 1998-2001: The speech is a laundry checklist. It is loaded with laundry of many shapes and colours. I discovered a memo that I had written to Michael in December of 1998, making what I knew to be a quixotic case for a tightly thematic State of the Union handle. And I knew that it was unlikely and the memo was written with that kind of self-awareness. And but I made the case as a result of I felt that I must make the case for a speech that stated one thing clearly definable and never many, many issues.

WALDMAN: I used to be despatched alongside on a visit, principally as a human Post-it be aware to remind him to concentrate on it, to Rhode Island on Dec. 3, 1998. On Air Force One, each time he walked by and noticed me, he would wince just a little bit.

JOSH GOTTHEIMER, presidential speechwriter and workers director, 1998-2001: We all got sections to put in writing; you’d concentrate on totally different areas. In a speech of that size, you’ll want to have individuals concentrate on totally different elements of it. It’s a reasonably hefty course of.

SHESOL: We tried to get the first full or fairly full draft into him earlier than the holidays. Because he was going to have some downtime over Christmas and New Year’s and that it was time for him to variety of sit down and concentrate on it. And we knew that instantly after New Year’s, we had been going to only hit the floor working at full dash.

WALDMAN: I’m certain I stated to individuals, “Just to be certain here, we’re not talking about it, right?” We had been conscious of how different presidents had spoken throughout scandals or controversies, they usually did it a bunch of alternative ways. But he was in the center of the trial and that will have made it further uncommon and perhaps unwise for him to speak about it.

PAUL BEGALA, counselor to the president, 1997-1999: Michael, at the starting of the affair scandal, dug into Watergate. He stated one of the important errors Nixon made in Watergate was he couldn’t cease speaking about Watergate. And so voters believed, rightly, that Nixon was obsessing day and evening about his personal political survival and ignoring them. So Bill Clinton stated it day-after-day: “Ken Starr has his job to do, and that’s his problem. You all can obsess on this, but it’s not something I’m going to obsess about.” And we adopted the technique.

JOHN PODESTA, chief of workers, 1998-2001: The press was writing: “What’s he going to say, what are they going to do about the trial, about impeachment?” And he was like, that’s not what the American public’s occupied with. And so I must get right into a rhythm and present that my job is to do the job they elected me to do, which is to concentrate to their lives, not what was happening in Washington. Obviously, the overhang was that we’re in the center of an impeachment trial, proper? I feel at that time it was obvious he wouldn’t be convicted. So we selected to disregard it.

SYLVIA BURWELL, deputy chief of workers, 1997-1998 and OMB deputy director, 1998-2001: It was “you focus on what you’re supposed to be focused on” even in the context of all the different stuff happening. The funds course of and the substantive course of of the State of the Union on each of these was intensive and in tandem. And so that they do drive, in the government department, choices and getting issues achieved.

WALDMAN: We would attain out to individuals exterior the administration and have conversations with students and writers whose books he appeared to love. He was very conscious of what different Third Way leaders like Tony Blair had been saying and the whole lot fed into it.

And then it would be draft after draft, and ultimately we’d have conferences in the Oval Office each few days. We would usher in a tape recorder however I might flip the tape recorder off if issues bought actually attention-grabbing. He did his greatest writing between the crossed out strains written by different individuals. He didn’t need fancy polished prose or stirring literary language that wasn’t his. He would cross it out and mutter, “Words, words, words.”

PODESTA: Clinton was an energetic editor of his speeches to the level of driving his speechwriters loopy.

SHESOL: He would neatly cross out each single line. The deliberateness of it! As he’s studying, his pen is shifting. I imply, we’ve all seen him do that 1,000,000 instances. You know, you simply really feel your coronary heart sinking as the pen continues its trajectory throughout the web page, you possibly can hear it. You simply hear the scratching of the pen and each single line had an enormous fats Sharpie line via it.

GOTTHEIMER: We all the time time-stamped the draft and also you’d have 2 a.m. on rather a lot of drafts. President Clinton was an evening owl so that you usually get feedback again by the time you wakened and also you return to your office after which it’s a must to flip the subsequent draft straight away and also you’d shuttle with the president and the president would closely line edit.

SHESOL: Not solely would he have made his modifications, however he would tally the phrase depend. He would sit there and depend the phrases that he had added or subtracted. He was sitting actually along with his pen, tapping the numbers of phrases. At the backside of this web page, you’d say plus 26. But the subsequent web page was minus 35.

PODESTA: Josh, who was one of the extra junior guys on the speech writing crew, all the time commanded the keyboard as a result of he may kind like 300 and fifty price a minute or one thing. When Clinton was pounding at the observe podium, solely Josh may sustain with him.

GOTTHEIMER: I don’t know if I used to be the quickest or as a result of I used to be the youngest, however I used to be all the time propped in entrance of the computer. And the president would name out a change or we’d all be speaking about including a brand new sentence they usually’d all huddle round [the computer].


The day of the State of the Union was additionally the first day — of three — that the White House would open its protection of Clinton in entrance of the 100 senators. White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff issued sweeping denials of the allegations and went level by level attacking the case laid out by the House impeachment managers.

Ruff opened with, “William Jefferson Clinton is not guilty of the charges that have been preferred against him. He did not commit perjury; he did not obstruct justice. He must not be removed from office.”

In his closing, Ruff would add, “We are not here to defend William Clinton the man. He, like all of us, will find his judges elsewhere. We are here to defend William Clinton, the president of the United States, for whom you are the only judges. You are free to criticize him, to find his personal conduct distasteful.”

Though everybody in the White House was very conscious of what was occurring only a brief stroll up Pennsylvania Avenue, the State of the Union crew stated they had been centered on placing the remaining touches on the speech. Clinton and the workers spent hours in the household theater, nonetheless working towards, nonetheless making modifications. Clinton was well-known for working up till the final minute, a lot in order that the vice chairman and speaker of the House would usually obtain the speech with some of the pages nonetheless heat from simply being printed off.


WALDMAN: We had been rewriting in the household theater with him up till the very finish that afternoon. The phrase had come that Rosa Parks would be in the first girl’s field. So she was added to it all slightly at the final minute, and so not surprisingly, we’ve got to rapidly write one thing.

JOE LOCKHART, press secretary 1998-2000: I usually would watch the State of the Union on TV from my office as a result of I actually needed to get the on the spot evaluation. But on this evening, I assumed I higher keep near him. Something bizarre may occur. And I wish to see it in order that I can come out and definitively say, that didn’t occur or that did occur. Or right here’s what actually occurred.

BEGALA: The trial was happening that day and the president was talking on the State of the Union that evening. They spent the complete day making an attempt him to take away him from office. So the president involves the Capitol constructing and by custom and by grace, the speaker loaned the president his office. To variety of lighten his temper, I’d have an ongoing argument with him whether or not the millennium started on Jan. 1, 2000 or Jan. 1, 2001.

And I might say, “Sir, you’re going to go down in history,” and he variety of brightened up, “as the only president who couldn’t count.” And the doorways swing open and in comes the escort committee. Clinton seems to be up and says, “Hey, guys Pauly here thinks the millennium begins in 2001! What do you think?” And he’s laughing. They all checked out him like he had two heads.

LOCKHART: Then it bought bizarre as a result of everybody is aware of that at a sure level you permit and the president is left to himself to get able to go give this speech. Except no person instructed [Republican Sen.] Strom Thurmond [who was on the escort committee] or in the event that they instructed him he didn’t hear it. Everybody leaves and there’s now three of us in the room as a result of I’m not letting them alone in the room with Strom Thurmond.

Strom is like, telling jokes. Clinton’s laughing. You know, he loves story. But he’s additionally like out of the nook of his eye, saying, this is, like, “Is this really happening?” And so ultimately, you realize, anyone needed to discover that nobody knew the place Strom was. Somebody comes alongside and takes him and thirty seconds later, the sergeant at arms is available in.

APRIL RYAN, White House reporter: I used to be up on the Hill that evening. I bear in mind the individuals who checked out him like, “The audacity to come to talk to us” and him with this demeanor of “I still want to do what I gotta do.” He walked into that speech with an albatross round his neck. And he needed to sound the bell of optimism for the nation, whilst his political career was in jeopardy.

PODESTA: It was Gene [Sperling’s] concept to do Social Security first. “Save Social Security first” earlier than you blew via the surplus, trying to attempt to generate some bipartisan help.

BEGALA: This is actually good craftsmanship that they put saving Social Security first, proper up there proper at the begin. And I imagine the Republicans didn’t see that coming. They had been prepared for the standard laundry checklist of spending from a Democrat. They’re used to saying that we’re tax and spend, however Social Security is unassailable. I feel it actually deflated the Republicans and excited the Democrats.

LOCKHART: I used to be going backwards and forwards as a result of I needed to see how it appeared on TV versus how it appeared in the room. For the first 30, 35 minutes of it, I used to be purely a spectator and I simply needed to see it from as many locations as I may.

I additionally felt like I couldn’t stand nonetheless. It was a second the place there was no margin for error. If he missed a line or ad-libbed and threw one thing in that perhaps sounded just a little bitter, it would have taken the complete speech down.

WALDMAN: I used to be backstage in the speaker’s gallery with the army officer. It went easily sufficient that I left and went out on the flooring of the House of Representatives. I used to be again with the House backbenchers, the Republican backbenchers and each time he hit a degree or stated one thing that they thought was their concept or no matter, they might simply gasp and say, “I can’t believe you did that.”

At one level, he proposed ending the rule that restricted earnings for Social Security recipients, which is one thing that Republicans pushed for a very long time. And I heard one congressman who was sitting close to me, he blurted out, “That’s incredible.” His fists had been balled. He was livid.

PODESTA: [Clinton] went in with the American public supporting him, and he got here out with them supporting him much more so.

LOCKHART: He got here off and he had, I suppose I’d describe it as a happy appear like I did that. I knew what I used to be speculated to do and I completed it. We had a reception, there all the time was a reception. It was only a assortment of essential individuals, some staffers, mates of the household and politicians. I’ve a reminiscence of him strolling in the room, everyone clapping. And then he simply began to work the room.

RYAN: Everybody was in a celebratory temper [at the party]. I feel they needed to maintain the optic inside the White House amongst the workers and out in public that that they had no disgrace in something.