State of Union Talk to Be Brief 'Agenda for the Future'

January 25, 1986|ELEANOR CLIFT | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Reagan's annual State of the Union address, to be delivered before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, will be an unusually brief, 20-minute appeal to traditional American values that portrays such vexing problems as defense spending and the federal deficit as challenges to a forward-looking nation.

Although the text of the speech, an annual accounting of presidential stewardship mandated by the Constitution, is still being polished, the central theme will be "an agenda for the future," according to White House officials involved. It will be heavily weighted toward domestic concerns, they said, and contain four major themes--the family, the budget, tax reform and national security.

Each will be highlighted with the positive, uplifting rhetoric that aides describe as "vintage Reagan." He will challenge Congress to "cut the federal budget, not the family budget," aides said, to vote military aid for "the rising tide of democracy" by funding "freedom fighters around the world" and to remember "the eyes of the world" are on them as they grapple with difficult budget choices.

And, in what has come to be another Reagan hallmark, the event will be dramatized by the surprise appearance of a hero or heroine in some field personally chosen by Reagan as an inspirational example for the country.

The decision to make Reagan's fifth State of the Union speech drastically shorter than preceding addresses was influenced by White House polling conducted last November after the Geneva summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Opinion sampling then showed that Reagan's l7-minute report to the nation was a rhetorical tour de force that sent his approval ratings soaring to a record 75%.

Skirts the Specifics

Faced with a perilous year of cut-to-the-bone budget battles and other politically hazardous struggles, the White House has decided to skirt the specifics and attempt to set a visionary tone.

Moreover, by focusing this year's speech on unifying generalities, Oval Office strategists sought to avoid the behind-the-scenes lobbying that traditionally precedes State of the Union messages--an effort that appears to have been largely but not entirely successful.

As the Super Bowl of presidential speeches, the State of the Union offers a matchless opportunity to promote ideas and programs with the public. As a result, the White House is traditionally besieged with requests from Cabinet secretaries, agency heads and powerful interest groups eager to insert a favorable sentence or even just a clause into the presidential text.

The usual result has been lengthy recitals that read like laundry lists and inspire few outside of a handful of victorious bureaucrats. A look back at Reagan's four previous addresses shows an unmemorable sameness, with each dominated by obligatory nods to peace, prosperity and special interests.

Can't Tell Difference

"You could almost lay them one on top of the other and not be able to tell the difference," said White House spokesman Larry Speakes. "It was like a cookie cutter."

Although the new approach headed off much of the usual lobbying, the White House was the target of apparently successful blitzes by two particularly potent elements in Reagan's political base--the right-to-life movement and conservative advocates of tax reform.

Moreover, the decision to keep the speech short triggered a bitter debate within the White House as top officials sparred over just the right ideological tone and argued about whether the addition of an anti-abortion declaration would "open a Pandora's box" of demands from other groups.

A tug-of-war between the political pragmatists and the true-blue conservatives has dogged the Reagan Administration from the beginning, and it has been particularly acute where presidential speeches are concerned since the appointment last year of the militantly conservative Patrick J. Buchanan as head of the White House speech writers' office.

Buchanan's Tireless Fight

Although Buchanan has kept an almost invisible public profile, White House strategists said that he waged a tireless fight to insert an anti-abortion segment and to preserve the confrontational rhetoric contained in early drafts of the national security section. "It would be a different speech if Pat Buchanan were not in the White House," one official said.

Buchanan had plenty of help from his friends in the conservative movement. Ed Haislmaier, a spokesman for the conservative Free Congress Foundation--after he was briefed on an early draft--derided Reagan's rhetoric as "watered-down old Chamber-of-Commerce Republican economics." Although he favored the concept of a thematic speech, Haislmaier charged that White House staff members used the approach "to simply avoid all the major issues and say things that everybody will agree with."

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