White House

To write a State of the Union for Clinton, you had to do math

Josh Gottheimer was on the speechwriting team back when impeachment collided with the annual address the first time

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., walks down the House steps at the Capitol in 2017. As a White House speechwriter under President Bill Clinton, Gottheimer worked on several State of the Union addresses. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Bill Clinton was good at keeping track of how many words were in his State of the Union.

It was 1999, the House had impeached him, a Senate trial was underway, and the president was up late doing math.

As he revised drafts of the annual speech, Clinton wrote a figure on the bottom of each page — the number of words he’d added or subtracted. A copy of one of those pages, printed at 1:30 a.m. just two days before the speech on Jan. 19, now hangs in the office of Rep. Josh Gottheimer.

“President Clinton was always working, he was up,” Gottheimer said in an interview last week, pointing to the framed page. The number “32,” written in blue ink, was meant as a reminder to add something later.

“He’d say, ‘Hey, folks, I could put this in because I removed those words. So I’m even,’” Gottheimer recalled.

When it comes to lengthy SOTUs, Clinton still holds the top two spots. His 2000 speech clocked in at almost 1 hour and 29 minutes. (President Donald Trump sits over six minutes back in third.)

If you were one of Clinton’s speechwriters, translating ideas into Arkansas-approved colloquialisms — think a turtle on a fence post, or the underbelly of a rattlesnake — was part of the job.  

Gottheimer, now 44 and a Democratic congressman from New Jersey, was a college undergraduate when he joined the Clinton campaign’s “rapid response” team in the run-up to the 1996 election.

Back then, rapid response teams were “the difference between the carriage and the auto,” he said. Before livestreams, the campaign got people with clunky, brick-like cellphones to call in from far-flung speeches so the team in Washington could listen to Clinton challenger Bob Dole’s speeches. Then they’d fire off a rebuttal by email or make a call — and “there was probably faxing involved.”

By the age of 23, Gottheimer worked in the White House alongside Terry Edmonds, the first African American chief speechwriter, and Michael Waldman, now president of the law and policy institute Brennan Center for Justice.

Gottheimer, the youngest member of the team, did everything from get lunch to write speeches, he said. 

The State of the Union, in which the president shares goals for the upcoming year sandwiched between applause lines, always ate up a big chunk of time. As summer turned to fall, the White House would start getting input from people across the country, from small-town business owners to celebrities like Oprah Winfrey.

Then “we’d sit with the president several times and say, ‘What do you want to talk about, what do you want to hit on?’” he said. The speech would get split up by subject, and a first draft would be ready by Christmastime.

The team knew how to channel Clinton’s down-home Arkansas dialect. “I’m from Jersey, he’s from Arkansas, so, you have to learn to speak Arkansan,” Gottheimer said. “In fact, my chief of staff now is from Arkansas, so, you know, I’m learning to speak Arkansan as best I can.”

The saying “stuff doesn’t just happen,” for instance, translates from Jersey to Arkansan as “If you see a turtle sitting on a fence post, you know it didn’t get there by itself.”

In the days before the speech, Clinton rehearsed in the White House theater with the team, which had lugged in large boxy desktop computers to do on-the-fly editing.

For one State of the Union during Clinton’s second term, the speech was still in surgery just moments before Clinton arrived at the Capitol. Gottheimer had to jump out of the motorcade and run into the building to get the words onto the teleprompter.

“And that’s how close we had it,” he said.

Before delivering his 1999 State of the Union address, President Clinton greets House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert,R-Ill., as Vice President Gore looks on. Douglas Graham/ CQ Roll Call file photo)
Before delivering his 1999 State of the Union address, President Clinton greets Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., as Vice President Gore looks on.  (Douglas Graham/ CQ Roll Call file photo)

As Gottheimer pointed to the 1999 speech now hanging in his office, he tried to explain how the team attempted to set a new tone amid Clinton’s impeachment trial, highlighting a shooting months before in which two Capitol Police officers gave their lives “to defend freedom’s house,” as Clinton said in his speech.

“The families were there in the gallery,” Gottheimer said. “And we talked about this, and about civility. And he says, ‘You asked us to work in a spirit of civility and bipartisanship. Mr. Speaker, let’s do exactly that.’”

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