The Man Behind the Words: Speechwriting for President Obama
Emma Ashooh | 10/5/16 11:49am
| Updated 10/5/16 11:49am
Emma Ashooh / American Word Magazine
We’ve heard the story before, some of us have even lived it: interning on the Hill for your senator—unpaid, of course. But who thought this humble beginning would lead to becoming President Obama’s director of speechwriting? Certainly not Cody Keenan.
You may not have heard his name, but you have heard his words. Cody Keenan has been working for Obama for nine years, beginning on the presidential campaign trail in 2007 with an internship as a speechwriter, then as a full-time staffer, then deputy director of speechwriting, and in 2013, Keenan was promoted to director of speechwriting. It is a path that began in the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s office as one of hundreds of interns and ended up where many only dream of reaching: the White House.
At an Irish Network DC event at the Dupont Circle Hotel, Keenan (an Irish-American) talked about the roughly 3,600 speeches written in the White House throughout Obama’s presidency. The first “big speech” Keenan wrote was for the shooting in Tucson, Arizona. At the time, the then-director of speechwriting was working on the State of the Union Address, so this speech fell to Keenan’s responsibility. Keenan has worked on a handful of State of the Union addresses himself. Keenan said these speeches are the worst for the speechwriting team; they begin preparing two months out. While the State of the Union is dreadful, the hardest speech Keenan ever wrote was the eulogy for the Newtown, CT shooting. “Newtown was the hardest ‘cause we had to do this in the span of about 36 hours,” he said. “How do you eulogize 20 six-year old children? That was probably the worst.”
Keenan said that Obama is his own chief speechwriter. The two often go back and forth with around seven drafts until the President is happy with the speech. If there were enough hours in the day, Keenan said Obama wouldn’t have speechwriters and would do the writing all on his own, but as President of the United States, it just isn’t possible. Though, with all of the speeches Keenan writes, he gets his cues from Obama. If it is something the President intensely cares about, they will set aside 30 minutes at the front end of writing to take time to hear what is on his mind. To this day, Keenan maintains that the best speech Obama has ever given was his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, one that Obama wrote all on his own and that set quite a daunting precedent for all of his future speechwriters.
Even after years of writing speeches for Obama, Keenan still struggles sometimes, especially when writing about race. “Speechwriting is all about empathy, about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, trying to connect with the audience, and that is the one area where it’s been most difficult [for me]. Fortunately, our head speechwriter is a black man, named Barack Obama, so I will talk to him.” For the draft Keenan wrote for the Charleston shooting, Obama crossed out the last two pages and put in his own, scribbling the words down on yellow legal paper. Keenan said this speech was his favorite Obama has given during his presidency, not because of what he wrote as the speechwriter but because of the last two pages Obama wrote.
One thing that sets Obama’s speeches apart from many others is that he views his speeches as storytelling. For this same reason, Obama does not like sound bites—he likes people to digest his speeches as a whole. Keenan and his speechwriting team have tried many times to sneak in an “Ask not” line, but Obama always sees it and it is the first thing he cuts out of a draft.
Some of the greatest inspiration Keenan gets for a speech comes from reading the same ten letters the president reads everyday, which come from people all over the country. Keenan built the 2015 State of the Union address around one of these letters. Other sources of inspiration include good books, interesting articles, movies, Friday Nights Lights and even advertisements. The 2012 State of the Union Address was built around a Chrysler Super Bowl half-time ad starring Clint Eastwood.
Keenan rejects the idea of writer’s block because it suggests to him that you have the perfect thing to say and you just cannot find it. Instead, he talks out a speech before he begins to write. He said you never have all the ideas or arguments, so talking it out is a good way to get the juices flowing before you sit down and start writing. This year’s State of the Union went through 20 drafts before Keenan gave it to the president to look over.
There are many ways to gauge the effectiveness of a speech Obama has delivered. Keenan does not like to scroll through Twitter to gauge this, unless “you want to castigate yourself,” but the administration conducts their own focus groups, which are the best read of it, and get information from CNN instant polls. Ultimately, his favorite way to tell if a speech is successful or not is by looking around the room to see if people are nodding their heads “because then you know if something is connecting, if it’s making sense.”
When it is said and done, Keenan said that going to the White House everyday to write speeches for the President does eventually feel like any other job. He is looking forward to having a normal schedule again and taking some time off, but there are things he will miss come January 20. As director of speechwriting, Keenan relies on others to help him understand the speeches’ topics, so he is often needing assistance from experts all over the world. That is the part he will miss the most he says, because when you’re the president’s speechwriter, anyone will answer your call.