STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Tonight at the U.S. Capitol, the sergeant-at-arms will introduce the president somewhat like this.
WILSON LIVINGOOD (United States House of Representatives Sergeant at Arms): Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States.
(Soundbite of applause)
INSKEEP: It's a ritual - happens every year. The president is giving his final State of the Union address. It's a moment for any president to reflect on his accomplishments, as President Clinton did in his last State of the Union in 2000.
(Soundbite of President Bill Clinton's State of the Union address)
President BILL CLINTON: Never before has our nation enjoyed at once, so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis and so few external threats.
INSKEEP: It's also a moment when any president will look ahead to what he still hopes to accomplish in the final year. We have been talking about State of the Union speeches with two speechwriters - one who helped with President Clinton's final address, and one who helped to write President Reagan's last State of the Union address, in 1988.
(Soundbite of President Ronald Reagan's State of the Union address)
President RONALD REAGAN: If anyone expects just a proud recitation of the accomplishments of my administration, I say let's leave that to history, we're not finished yet.
(Soundbite of applause)
INSKEEP: We begin with Clark Judge. He helped to write the final State of the Union address for one of the masters at delivering them - Ronald Reagan. This was 1988. Welcome to the program.
Mr. CLARK JUDGE (Former Chief Speechwriter, President Ronald Reagan): Good to be with you, Steve.
INSKEEP: Okay, now be honest. It's late in Ronald Reagan's presidency, he has given so many speeches, was it hard to come up with anything new to say at that point?
Mr. JUDGE: No. I mean, The State of the Union address is very much an address of the great themes of a presidency together with the moment that he's giving it. Reagan is the second president with two terms who's looking at the end of his term when he gives the State of the Union address and is not allowed by law to run again. Only Eisenhower had been in that position before that. This was the time, as it was with Eisenhower and as it was with Clinton after Reagan, of laying out an agenda, an aggressive agenda for the year, moving for a big finish. In all three cases, you have a speech about the future, not about the past.
INSKEEP: Since you mentioned Clinton, let's bring in someone who helped Bill Clinton with his final State of the Union address. Terry Edmonds was President Clinton's chief speechwriter eight years ago. Welcome to the program.
Mr. TERRY EDMONDS (Former Chief Speechwriter, President Bill Clinton): Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: Now we just heard Clark Judge talking about a president who wanted to do something in his final year, which Bill Clinton, of course, wanted to do many things as well. Was it hard, though, to catch the public's attention at that moment?
Mr. EDMONDS: No. I think it was never hard for Bill Clinton to catch the public's attention because he was such a rock star president.
INSKEEP: Although, come on, this is a moment when his wife is making headlines. She's on her way to the Senate. The Monica Lewinsky thing has come and gone, the vice president's running for president, there's a guy named George W. Bush making headlines in 2000. Isn't that a hard time for a president to break through quite as much?
Mr. EDMONDS: Well…
INSKEEP: Clark Judge is shaking his head. Now he…
Mr. JUDGE: No, no.
INSKEEP: Go ahead, Terry.
Mr. EDMONDS: It really was not, and we had really three main objectives for that speech. The first, you know, because we had been in office for seven years, we wanted to reflect on the then and now. You know, where we had come from since 1992 and how we got there. And the second part of it was to put forth proposals for the unfinished business of the coming year. Things like the solvency of Social Security and Medicare, prescription drug benefit - those kinds of things. And third, you know, he wanted to lay out some big challenges that the country was facing, not only in the coming year, but in the next decade.
INSKEEP: Can each of you recall for me a particular subject on which you struggle to get just the right phraseology for that last State of the Union speech to get the message out the way you want it?
Mr. EDMONDS: Wow, not really. I think Clark will agree with me, that State of the Unions are the most clunky product for speechwriters. Because what we're trying to do - sometimes they turn into laundry lists of proposals or of things that the president wants to accomplish in the next year. And it's very hard to sort of give it a central theme. The problem is not so much how to frame it, but what to leave in and what to take out.
Mr. JUDGE: Yeah, what I would say is that some of this is nature of the beast, that is the State of the Union address - what Terry just described. Some of it's the president too. President Clinton's is a very long list of initiatives and yet an ambitious program for the last year. President Reagan's is far more thematic, but then President Reagan himself was far more thematic. Freedom in the world, revival of the economy. Those are two big themes, and he - revival of the economy through free markets - and you see that running all through that address, that final address. Strength of civil society. These are all discussions that formed the broad themes of President Reagan's last State of the Union address, as they did of his term.
INSKEEP: One last question, gentlemen, if I might. It's commonly said that second terms of presidents have not worked out very well, that the last year may be the worst of all. Did either of you have very much fun working in the final year of an administration?
Mr. JUDGE: Speaking for myself, it was great. We had a lot of things in the foreign realm come together. And then of course, we had the campaign, which we won. We also had the confirmation of the president's last nominee for the Supreme Court, Anthony Kennedy. So it was a terrific year. It was…
INSKEEP: Even though it had been a tough second term.
Mr. JUDGE: Oh, sure. But that's - you don't go into these things because you want an easy time. You know, you love the fight. If you don't love the fight, you don't go in. And you - by the way, just speaking about Terry and his colleagues, you like your opponents, too. I mean, you couldn't have the fun with - if they weren't around.
Mr. EDWARDS: Right. It was a great year for us, too, you know. It sort of culminated all the things that we had been trying to do. We left the country in great shape. And then the president was looking forward to some of the big challenges - health care and shoring up Social Security and Medicare, and those things. And he knew that he - we wouldn't be able to perhaps solve all those problems in the last year, but he wanted to at least set the marker - get the country focused on it.
INSKEEP: Terry Edmonds was a speechwriter for President Clinton. Clark Judge, a speechwriter for President Reagan as they considered their final State of the Union speeches. President Bush's is tonight.
Mr. EDWARDS: Thank you.
Mr. JUDGE: Thank you.
INSKEEP: You can hear the final State of the Union speeches of presidents Reagan and Clinton and learn about the history of those annual addresses to Congress by going to npr.org.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.