Transcription – John McConnell Interview

Q: Well, governing and campaigning are easier to talk about as separate things than the reality is, I know. Certainly one of the things that people involved in the 2000 campaign will say is that candidate Bush underperformed among some groups in the electorate, particularly evangelical Christians, that the turnout wasn’t as high as Karl Rove and others had expected, and they really saw ’04 as [01:00:00] posing the challenge of how do you energize that core constituency to actually turn out and vote. Is anything I’m saying ring false with you?

MCCONNELL: You know, I was never involved in any kind of strategic discussion about the campaign. Mike Gerson never came from a meeting, and no one ever put it to us that a speech ought to be written because this segment of the population is the target audience. Never. Never once when he was president, nor even 2000. “Well, this is a speech for them,” or anything like that. It just wasn’t. In that sense, I was removed from strategy or whatever else, and strategy — the campaign [01:01:00] had its message. The president was running on his record. That was our task, and we were writing about things we’d been writing about the whole time, putting it, of course, in the context of the match up, which originally was supposed to be Dean. (laughter) But, you know, 2003 ended. Everybody thought it was going to be Dean, the Democratic nominee.

Q: I’m thinking about, there’s the special speeches you didn’t even know you were going to write until Monday, and then you’ve got to write it for Thursday. Then there’s the sort of set pieces, right? Like every year, the State of the Union. What was that process like?

MCCONNELL: The State of the Union is an example of a speech where you could conceivably write it months and months in advance. It’s always nice to think [01:02:00] you’d have a speech written or a lot of time to write speeches, so why not do the State of the Union three months in advance and have it ready? The fact is these things are always written in the moment, and that anything you would have done for the State of the Union in September is going to feel stale. It’s going to feel like it was written in September. It’s just going to be a different — the air is going to be different in January, politically and issues wise. So the fact is these things are written in the moment. The policy development occurs in the year leading up to it. I couldn’t tell you when the meetings were held. I wouldn’t have been part of them. But by late in the year, we’re talking November 19th, by Thanksgiving time, it’s probably fair to say right now that President Obama’s team has a sense of what they’re going to be proposing in the State of the Union, [01:03:00] but I’ll bet the writers aren’t working on it yet.

In our case, a little before Christmas Mike Gerson would come in, and he would have received all of the input on policy, the agreed-upon policy topics and the agreed upon emphasis for those topics for the State of the Union. So he and Matthew and I would sit down and do a heavy outline of the speech, written in sentences, but six pages instead of the speech, which is going to be 25 pages. But it’s a heavy outline written for the president, and it’s for him to react to. OK, here is what’s going to be in the speech, and here’s how we are thinking the speech is going to proceed. Here’s how it’s going to be organized, here’s how we think we’re going to get into it, etc. [01:04:00] Then, in the years that we did this as a team, the president would, around New Year’s, give us his reaction to that outline. Then we would choose — for some reason it always took exactly a week, seven days — we would choose a week to write the State of the Union, and we would work seven days in a row to do the first draft, because it’s a long speech. We tried to keep it under 4,000 words in the first draft, because people were going to want to add things, and you didn’t want it to get too long.

But anyway, then, of course, it would be staffed, but not the usual staffing process. I think that State of the Union would go to a smaller group of people initially, I think. But at a certain point it goes to a very broad group of people, including the Cabinet secretaries. [01:05:00] That goes through many drafts, because of the level of attention that speech is going to get, the profile, and it sets the tone for the year. So the president is going to be involved in that. He’s going to be involved in editing multiple drafts, more than he does on the typical speech, and he’s going to practice it. On a number of occasions the first read through with the president would be in the Oval Office, and he would be sitting in his chair at the Resolute desk with his glasses on reading it aloud and giving us his first reaction to the speech as a set of spoken words. Then we’d go make our edits. It was a long process. But it was also just one speech in January [01:06:00], in that other sense, and so they were constantly putting other things on his schedule. It’s a very busy month for the speechwriters.

Q: And in an election year, or a re-election year, you’ve got to be aware that this is the first major speech of the reelection campaign, right? It’s not just a governing speech, it’s going to have a huge audience, and it’s coming at the beginning of the year.

MCCONNELL: Well, that’s exactly right. The beginning of a year, the president really wants to set his agenda before the people and, if at all possible, have the discussion proceed on his own terms. That happens every year with every president, and it’s just heightened in an election year.