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Annual Address Takes Months to Produce

The State of the Union address takes months to produce, leaves almost no White House desk untouched and tests the patience of presidential aides pressured by nearly every interest group around to include a pet project or passion.

But when it comes to the biggest speech of the year, you can count on orderly, corporate-like efficiency from President Bush's White House.

Bush himself is quick to spot any unsanctioned, last-minute alteration in the text. More often than not, he accurately identifies the staffer who demanded that the speechwriters include it, and then orders the offending item scrubbed.

Unlike predecessor Bill Clinton, this president is hardly one to be caught scribbling in the margins while riding in his limo to the Capitol to deliver the speech.

"There is never any of that last-minute activity," said Matthew Scully, a Bush speechwriter from the 2000 election campaign until August 2004.

When Bush goes before a joint session of Congress and a national television audience Tuesday night for his fifth State of the Union, what he says will largely dictate his and the Republican Party's 2006 agenda. His proposals will have the added heft of helping drive the debate in this fall's congressional campaign.

Adding to the decision-making to-do list, the address is delivered less than a week before the president's budget request for 2007 goes to Congress.

The address is Washington's most coveted rhetorical real estate, and emotions can run hot. The stakes are so high that White House counselor Dan Bartlett said he waits as long as possible to tell the disappointed many that their suggestions likely won't make it into the speech. Otherwise, he said, "sometimes you won't get the same level of output" from them afterward.

"Every word matters enormously," said Michael Waldman, a veteran of four State of the Union addresses as Clinton's chief speechwriter. "There's a lot of interest in the commas, in the dashes. From Cabinet secretaries to assistants, everyone is involved."

Still, Bartlett said the process has calmed from the hectic early years after five go-rounds. "There's a little bit of a routine to it now," he said.

With just a day to go, this year's speech has gone through at least two dozen drafts. On Monday, Bush had what is likely to be his last practice session with the remarks in the White House's Family Theater.

Preparation actually begins in early fall, when the White House's domestic, economic and foreign policy directors start canvassing for ideas on the agenda for the next year.

Intense lobbying ensues from across the federal bureaucracy, Capitol Hill and a thick web of advocacy groups -- all hoping for a presidential embrace of their policy goal or at least a passing mention of their issue.

Whittling the list takes much into account beyond the merits of policy. The communications shop pays attention to how the address can enhance the president's image and message. Political advisers look for ways to boost the president and his allies in Congress with voters.

By Christmas, speechwriters produce a detailed outline with topics, themes and even some phrasing.

Deciding what the address will say is just one State of the Union-related endeavor that ties the White House in knots.

There is the politically charged process of determining who will sit in the first lady's box in the House chamber as living symbols of the president's words. Fact sheets must be assembled to add detail to proposals Bush sketches only thinly. And teams fan out to plan the now-traditional post-speech road show, in which the president tries to gain momentum with appearances in strategically chosen locales.

Draft No. 1 emerged less than two weeks before showtime for review by Bush and a small circle of advisers. "You hit panic mode if you don't like the first draft at all," Bartlett said.

The speech is then parceled out more widely. A team of fact checkers springs into action. Relevant sections go to officials such as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the White House policy shops.

With their input in hand and about a week to go, Bush, his top aides and the speechwriters take to the Oval Office for wide-ranging bull sessions. Over a couple days, Bush and others read aloud and sew the speech back together. Once it is in good form, they move to the Family Theater for practices that get progressively more formal and produce fewer and fewer changes.

In the final product, linguistic flourish almost always takes a back seat to policy laundry lists. "People who are looking for grand oratory in a speech like this should keep the remote handy," Waldman said.

Even with the speech set, the day of delivery is hectic. Excerpts must be selected to distribute beforehand. The president sits down with TV anchors to preview the address. Lawmakers are briefed.

"I'm looking forward to speaking to the country," Bush told reporters on Monday. "We got a lot to be proud of. We got a lot of work to do."