2005 sucked for Governator

He should say so in his State of the State speech, apologize, then move on, say two former speechwriters

Photo Illustration by Don Button and Larry Dalton

Speechwriting for the governor was a different kind of gig back when Bill Whalen did it. During his stint under the Capitol dome, just getting television stations to run then Governor Pete Wilson’s annual State of the State speech live was like trying to convince them to run a blank screen.

When Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks, different story.

So, whether it be live, in sound bites clipped and rebroadcast on television and radio, or in regurgitated quotes peppered throughout news stories in the coming campaign year, Californians will hear what Schwarzenegger says Thursday, January 5.

And that, says Whalen, makes each word and inflection of voice delivered during the speech all the more important.

“Tone is going to be the key,” said Whalen, who, during his time as chief speechwriter for Wilson, wrote several State of the State addresses. Whalen said Schwarzenegger should try to make nice with the Democratic Legislature. “He’s going to want to bury the hatchet—but not bury it between their eyes.”

Phil Trounstine, who wrote three State of the States when he was communications director for former Governor Gray Davis, agreed.

“Legislators will be listening to hear his tone when he’s speaking to them in front of other people,” Trounstine said.

Schwarzenegger’s speech comes at a somewhat tumultuous time in his administration. Last year was a divisive one, which produced a costly special election in which all of his measures failed. Later this year, he will run for re-election. And he just shuffled his senior staff.

The State of the State speech is used to sum up the past year; provide a roadmap and vision for the coming year; and preview the state budget, which the governor will submit to the Legislature this month. It’s the governor’s most monumental speech of the year.

Those who work for the governor historically try to obscure the speechwriting process—the months-long effort by writers and policy advisers to craft a theme and message and give a politician words—preferring instead to focus all attention on the talking head.

“It’s the governor’s speech, and it’s the governor’s visions,” Schwarzenegger press secretary Margita Thompson said, declining to discuss the who and when and how or other specifics of the State of the State address.

Also, according to both Trounstine and Whalen, the process of drafting and revising the speech usually includes the governor’s top aides: chief of staff, Cabinet secretary, communications director and press secretary. But in Schwarzenegger’s case, those aides have shuffled in recent weeks. Communications Director Rob Stutzman was replaced, as was Cabinet Secretary Terry Tamminen. Also, Susan Kennedy, a prominent Democrat from the Gray Davis administration, became Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff.

Both former speechwriters suggested that Schwarzenegger should admit that 2005—including the special-election flop—was largely a waste.

“I think if he’s smart, he’ll acknowledge that he didn’t handle things as well as he could have in the previous year,” Trounstine said.

Trounstine, now director of the Survey & Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University, cited some of his own poll numbers to indicate how Schwarzenegger should approach the speech and the coming year.

In March 2005, the institute asked people about Schwarzenegger and how he should approach his job. When asked if he should be putting more effort into working with the Legislature, 62 percent of those asked said yes, compared with just 25 percent who said no. Among Democrats and independents, the yes response was even higher, at 71 percent and 66 percent respectively.

“It’s pretty clear they want to hear that the governor is going to work with the Legislature to get things done,” Trounstine said.

That’s contrary to the tone political rhetoric usually takes on in an election year. When the governor is running for re-election, as Schwarzenegger currently is, the two political parties typically polarize, rather than come together on some middle ground.

Whalen also cited poll numbers showing that while the governor enjoys cloud-high name recognition, very few Californians appear to know what he stands for. In this election year, the governor has just eight months to communicate what he stands for and to get something done, Whalen said.

“Listen for how much of a stand he takes on his own ideas,” Whalen suggested.

The two speechwriters differed on one State of the State point. Whalen believes the speech is aimed at the public, while Trounstine said it is written for the Legislature, not the proverbial man-on-the-street.

“The average person won’t pay much attention to what the governor says during his State of the State speech,” Trounstine said.