The backdrop of Biden’s State of the Union is crazy. But it won’t be the craziest.
When Joe Biden walks out to the House chamber on Tuesday evening to deliver his first State of the Union address, it will come amid a cacophony of major domestic developments and geopolitical crises. An escalating war in Ukraine, the nomination of a historic justice to the Supreme Court, the lingering Covid pandemic, and a stalled-out domestic agenda will all serve as dramatic backdrops.
And yet, it still may not qualify as the strangest context for a State of the Union address in modern memory.
That honor arguably belongs to Bill Clinton, who, 23 years ago, entered the House chamber having been impeached exactly a month prior for perjury and obstruction of justice. The sordid details from Ken Starr’s report, which revealed intimate elements of Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, was dominating media coverage. Lawmakers had called on Clinton not to speak at all, urging him to wait until the impeachment process had played out.
Inside the White House, there was no sense that he would skip that stage. Clinton and his staff saw the State of the Union address as a way to show the American people that the scandal wasn’t stopping them from focusing on the policy and they felt voters had his back; Clinton’s approval rating was sitting at 69 percent. The United States was running a budget surplus of more than $70 billion, and for the first time since 1934, the incumbent president's party had added House seats in the midterm elections.
Then-White House chief of staff John Podesta created a line of demarcation for the staff between the impeachment and government work so that staff could 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 both, told 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 address that didn’t mention impeachment once but became memorialized in political history for his call to preserve and fund Social Security.
What follows is the recollections from some of the key players in the Clinton White House on how that speech, and that moment in history, came together.
MICHAEL WALDMAN, director of speech writing, 1995-1999: In November, we sent him memos proposing what he ought to talk about and themes.
JEFF SHESOL, speechwriter, 1998-2001: The speech is a laundry list. It is loaded with laundry of many shapes and colors. I found 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 address. And I knew that it was unlikely and the memo was written with that sort of self-awareness. And yet I made the case because I felt that I ought to make the case for a speech that said something clearly definable and not many, many things.
WALDMAN: I was sent along on a trip, basically as a human Post-it note to remind him to focus on it, to Rhode Island on Dec. 3, 1998. On Air Force One, every time he walked by and saw me, he would wince a little bit.
JOSH GOTTHEIMER, presidential speechwriter and staff director, 1998-2001: We all were given sections to write; you would focus on different areas. In a speech of that length, you need to have people focus on different aspects of it. It's a pretty hefty process.
SHESOL: We tried to get the first full or reasonably full draft into him before the holidays. Because he was going to have some downtime over Christmas and New Year's and that it was a good time for him to kind of sit down and focus on it. And we knew that immediately after New Year's, we were going to just hit the ground running at full sprint.
WALDMAN: I'm sure I said to people, “Just to be certain here, we're not talking about it, right?” We were aware of how other presidents had spoken during scandals or controversies, and they did it a bunch of different ways. But he was in the middle of the trial and that would have made it extra unusual and maybe unwise for him to talk about it.
PAUL BEGALA, counselor to the president, 1997-1999: Michael, at the beginning of the affair scandal, dug into Watergate. He said one of the critical errors Nixon made in Watergate was he couldn't stop talking about Watergate. And so voters believed, rightly, that Nixon was obsessing day and night about his own political survival and ignoring them. So Bill Clinton said it every 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 strategy.
JOHN PODESTA, chief of staff, 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 interested in. And so I need to get into a rhythm and show that my job is to do the job they elected me to do, which is to pay attention to their lives, not what was going on in Washington. Obviously, the overhang was that we're in the middle of an impeachment trial, right? I think at that point it was apparent he wouldn't be convicted. So we chose to ignore it.
SYLVIA BURWELL, deputy chief of staff, 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 other stuff going on. The budget process and the substantive process of the State of the Union on both of those was extensive and in tandem. And so they do drive, in the executive branch, decisions and getting things done.
WALDMAN: We would reach out to people outside the administration and have conversations with scholars and writers whose books he seemed to like. He was very aware of what other Third Way leaders like Tony Blair were saying and everything fed into it.
And then it would be draft after draft, and eventually we would have meetings in the Oval Office every few days. We would bring in a tape recorder but I would turn the tape recorder off if things got really interesting. He did his best writing between the crossed out lines written by other people. He did not want 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 active editor of his speeches to the point of driving his speechwriters crazy.
SHESOL: He would neatly cross out every single line. The deliberateness of it! As he's reading, his pen is moving. I mean, we've all seen him do this a million times. You know, you just feel your heart sinking as the pen continues its trajectory across the page, you can hear it. You just hear the scratching of the pen and every single line had a big fat Sharpie line through it.
GOTTHEIMER: We always time-stamped the draft and you’d have 2 a.m. on a lot of drafts. President Clinton was a night owl so you often get comments back by the time you woke up and you go back to your office and then you have to turn the next draft right away and you'd go back and forth with the president and the president would heavily line edit.
SHESOL: Not only would he have made his changes, but he would tally the word count. He would sit there and count the words that he had added or subtracted. He was sitting literally with his pen, tapping the numbers of words. At the bottom of this page, you would say plus 26. But the next page was minus 35.
PODESTA: Josh, who was one of the more junior guys on the speech writing team, always commanded the keyboard because he could type like three hundred and fifty worth a minute or something. When Clinton was pounding at the practice podium, only Josh could keep up with him.
GOTTHEIMER: I don't know if I was the fastest or because I was the youngest, but I was always propped in front of the computer. And the president would call out a change or we'd all be talking about adding a new sentence and they'd all huddle around [the computer].
The day of the State of the Union was also the first day — of three — that the White House would open its defense of Clinton in front of the 100 senators. White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff issued sweeping denials of the allegations and went point by point 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 everyone in the White House was very aware of what was happening just a short walk up Pennsylvania Avenue, the State of the Union team said they were focused on putting the final touches on the speech. Clinton and the staff spent hours in the family theater, still practicing, still making changes. Clinton was famous for working up until the last minute, so much so that the vice president and speaker of the House would often receive the speech with some of the pages still warm from just being printed off.
WALDMAN: We were rewriting in the family theater with him up until the very end that afternoon. The word had come that Rosa Parks would be in the first lady’s box. So she was added to it all rather at the last minute, and so not surprisingly, we have to quickly write something.
JOE LOCKHART, press secretary 1998-2000: I normally would watch the State of the Union on TV from my office because I really wanted to get the instant analysis. But on this night, I thought I better stay close to him. Something weird could happen. And I want to see it so that I can come out and definitively say, that didn't happen or that did happen. Or here's what really happened.
BEGALA: The trial was going on that day and the president was speaking on the State of the Union that night. They spent the whole day trying him to remove him from office. So the president comes to the Capitol building and by tradition and by grace, the speaker loaned the president his office. To kind of lighten his mood, I'd have an ongoing argument with him whether the millennium began on Jan. 1, 2000 or Jan. 1, 2001.
And I would say, “Sir, you're going to go down in history,” and he kind of brightened up, “as the only president who couldn't count.” And the doors swing open and in comes the escort committee. Clinton looks up and says, “Hey, guys Pauly here thinks the millennium begins in 2001! What do you think?” And he's laughing. They all looked at him like he had two heads.
LOCKHART: Then it got weird because everyone knows that at a certain point you leave and the president is left to himself to get ready to go give this speech. Except nobody told [Republican Sen.] Strom Thurmond [who was on the escort committee] or if they told him he didn't hear it. Everybody leaves and there's now three of us in the room because I'm not letting them alone in the room with Strom Thurmond.
Strom is like, telling jokes. Clinton's laughing. You know, he loves a good story. But he's also like out of the corner of his eye, saying, this is, like, “Is this really happening?” And so eventually, you know, somebody had to notice that no one knew where Strom was. Somebody comes along and takes him and thirty seconds later, the sergeant at arms comes in.
APRIL RYAN, White House reporter: I was up on the Hill that night. I remember the people who looked at 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 around his neck. And he had to sound the bell of optimism for the nation, even as his political career was in jeopardy.
PODESTA: It was Gene [Sperling’s] idea to do Social Security first. “Save Social Security first” before you blew through the surplus, looking to try to generate some bipartisan support.
BEGALA: This is really good craftsmanship that they put saving Social Security first, right up there right at the start. And I believe the Republicans didn't see that coming. They were ready for a standard laundry list of spending from a Democrat. They're used to saying that we're tax and spend, but Social Security is unassailable. I think it really deflated the Republicans and excited the Democrats.
LOCKHART: I was going back and forth because I wanted to see how it looked on TV versus how it looked in the room. For the first 30, 35 minutes of it, I was purely a spectator and I just wanted to see it from as many places as I could.
I also felt like I couldn't stand still. It was a moment where there was no margin for error. If he missed a line or ad-libbed and threw something in that maybe sounded a little bitter, it would have taken the whole speech down.
WALDMAN: I was backstage in the speaker's gallery with the military officer. It went smoothly enough that I left and went out on the floor of the House of Representatives. I was back with the House backbenchers, the Republican backbenchers and every time he hit a point or said something that they thought was their idea or whatever, they would just gasp and say, “I can't believe you did that.”
At one point, he proposed ending the rule that limited earnings for Social Security recipients, which is something that Republicans pushed for a long time. And I heard one congressman who was sitting near me, he blurted out, “That's incredible.” His fists were balled. He was furious.
PODESTA: [Clinton] went in with the American public supporting him, and he came out with them supporting him even more so.
LOCKHART: He came off and he had, I guess I'd describe it as a satisfied look like I did that. I knew what I was supposed to do and I accomplished it. We had a reception, there always was a reception. It was just a collection of important people, some staffers, friends of the family and politicians. I have a memory of him walking in the room, everybody clapping. And then he just started to work the room.
RYAN: Everybody was in a celebratory mood [at the party]. I think they wanted to keep the optic within the White House amongst the staff and out in public that they had no shame in anything.