The November after he graduated, Christopher Michel ’03 wrote President George W. Bush’s ’68 speech for the annual turkey-pardoning ceremony the White House holds each Thanksgiving.
But this past December, Michel received a different assignment: he was ordered to sit down with fellow speechwriters Bill McGurn and Marc Thiessen to outline the president’s State of the Union address.
Michel — who began his career at the White House as an unpaid intern two weeks after commencement and is now a deputy speechwriter — has now worked on five State of the Unions, the first two as a researcher and a fact checker, the last three as a writer, he recounted in phone and e-mail conversations with the News on Monday.
“Marc and I wrote most of the first draft in the first two weeks of January, while the president was on a trip to the Middle East,” he explained, adding that extensive revisions began when Bush returned on Jan. 17. “This is always a busy time of the year for us. We generally get to the office before 7 in the morning, and we’ve been working nonstop till 9 at night or later.”
Among those who contributed was Jonathan Horn ’04, who was involved in writing a section of the initial draft.
Michel said that during the days leading up to Monday’s address, Bush spent his time trying to pare down the speech, which ultimately clocked in at just over an hour, including pauses for applause — whether it came both sides of the aisle or only one.
For Michel, fresh out of college and still accustomed to all-nighters, writing the State of the Union was a “fascinating experience.”
“It’s the one speech each year mandated by the Constitution,” he said. “It is a thrill to be involved with a tradition that goes all the way back to the founding of our country.”
Despite its tradition, the speech itself is steeped in the moment. At two small meetings of Yale Political Union members who gathered to watch the speech last night, undergraduates from across the political spectrum noted with surprise Bush’s references to alternative energy and reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil through means other than drilling.
Michel said that while the president has spoken about oil alternatives and climate change in the past, this year’s speech employed “some fresh language,” even though the policies outlined were not themselves new. From his vantage point on the floor of the House of Representatives, he noticed bipartisan applause for the president’s comments on energy and the environment, Michel said after the speech.
He compared the State of the Union to a senior essay.
“Your challenge is to bring together a lot of widely varied information into a single document with a clear philosophical theme,” he said, adding that the speech is edited by dozens of people, for both policy and style.
“A lot of eyes look over it,” Michel said, “and everything is absolutely scrubbed for accuracy and validity of sourcing.”
He said he agrees with his boss, McGurn, who he said calls the State of the Union “the most heavily edited 15 pages in America.”
Of course, Michel said, it is the president who ultimately puts a personal touch on every aspect of the speech, as he practiced it multiple times a day in the White House Family Theater during the week leading up to the address.
Michel has a history of writing without direct attribution. During his time at Yale, he worked for the News, eventually serving as editor in chief. In that position, he said, he wrote the majority of the paper’s “News’ Views.”
“My favorite part of the job,” Michel said, “was writing the daily editorials — which were also unsigned.”
Just as this is Bush’s last State of the Union, it will also be Michel’s, he said.
“Finding someone else [besides Bush] who I agree with on so much would be unlikely,” he said. “I would have a hard time writing speeches for someone I didn’t agree with. It would be morally difficult for any individual to do that, I think, and I can’t imagine they could make particularly effective arguments.”
Michel, who is not interested in pursuing a career in speechwriting, said he hopes to move on to law school next — although where that desire will take him, he cannot predict.
“If you had asked me during senior year what I’d be doing …” Michel began.
Then, his voice trailed off.