How Obama and his chief speechwriter made sense of America’s ‘beautiful mess’
Editor’s Note: This story was adapted from the September 14 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.
Such turmoil has raged since Barack Obama left the White House in January 2017 that his presidency feels like it unfolded in a distant age.
While history’s judgments take decades, it is already clear that the two terms of the first Black President triggered a backlash that has shaped America ever since. He was, after all, succeeded by Donald Trump, who got his political start by authoring a racist and false conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in the United States.
The current conservative Supreme Court majority dragging the country to the right owes much to the refusal of Senate Republicans to grant Obama a pick for the top bench that was his constitutional prerogative. And from Obama’s landmark health care law to the Iran nuclear deal, Republicans spent much of the time since his presidency ended trying to undo his legacy.
Obama’s chief speechwriter, Cody Keenan, is out with a new book “Grace,” which drills down on 10 days in 2015 that even at the time felt like one of the most historic, tragic and politically pivotal periods of Obama’s White House tenure. Keenan paints an insider account of an emotional week-and-a-half that saw the Supreme Court uphold the right to same-sex marriage and save Obamacare, and the President give a eulogy for the ages in memory of a pastor who was among nine people murdered in a racially motivated massacre in Charleston, South Carolina.
The then-President, who stunned Americans by singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral, summed up that heady week after the Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex couples were due the same fundamental rights as everyone else. “(It’s) sometimes two steps forward, one step back, compelled by the persistent effort of dedicated citizens,” he said. “And then sometimes there are days like this, when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”
Meanwhile spoke to Keenan this week about his book, which is less a standard Washington memoir with a scorecard of political wins and losses and more a reflection on the painful process of forging change. It’s a meditation on the craft of speech writing itself, and its place in a presidency that, more than most, was rooted in the power of rhetoric.
Our interview is below.
What exactly is the role of a speech writer in a presidency? President Obama used rhetoric in a way that few other Presidents do – to sketch a problem, suggest solutions and galvanize political action, to try to forge common national understandings. What is lost when a President doesn’t do that?
A sense of direction. Some shared national story and priorities. A moral compass. In the absence of those, we come unmoored. It can feel like everyone’s in it for themselves. And if a president fills that void with division and petty grievance, some pretty ugly stuff bubbles up. The lower end of the job is helping to keep a lid on our basest instincts, to fight fires, to prevent the worst.
At its best, though, the arc of a presidency’s rhetoric can inspire, change hearts and minds, even change the country’s course. We suffered no illusions about how difficult that would be – but my speechwriting team and I always approached each speech as if we could do it. Otherwise, why bother?
What is the process behind a big speech? How do you decide what the President wants to say, how many drafts go back and forth, etc.?
The process began with Obama. We’d steal some time on his schedule to sit down with him and ask ourselves, ‘What’s the story we’re trying to tell and why?’ If he was on his game that day, his moral imagination could give a big speech some lift from the start – and his meticulous edits would get it where it needed to be.
If he wasn’t on his game that day, I’d sometimes try to provoke him with some of the political idiocy du jour. The prologue to “Grace” reveals the process for Obama’s speech in Selma. I needled him with some bumbling monologue by Rudy Giuliani in which he’d tried to convince the Republican base that he, too, thought Obama to be insufficiently American.
Highlights from President Obama’s speech in Selma
Obama didn’t care and brushed that right off his shoulder, but he did think it brought up a worthy topic to explore in Selma: Who gets to decide what it means to be an American? Was a group of mostly poor, mostly Black Americans who got their heads cracked in because they dared to march for voting rights somehow not a part of “Real America?” That prompt inspired probably his best speech, one that recast the American story in a fuller, truer way, and became the purest distillation of what he thinks patriotism and American exceptionalism really are. It also became our purest collaboration – thanks to a “snow day” in Washington, we got to kick five drafts back and forth, each becoming better than the last.
(Obama traveled to Selma, Alabama, in March 2015 to mark the 50th anniversary of one of the turning points of the civil rights struggle, when peaceful marchers were beaten by state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge).
A criticism of Obama was that sometimes he was too ready to reach for a speech – and that sometimes speeches became a substitute for action in deadlocked Washington. How do you respond to that?
Believe me, there were times when we as speechwriters criticized him for being too ready to reach for a speech too! But I think that criticism also sells short all the people who worked behind the scenes every day – White House staffers, congressional staffers, advocates and activists and organizers – in a system that is often designed to stymie change and exhaust your passion. There were nights we went home relieved if we’d managed to move the ball forward just a little bit. You don’t get the big moments of victory and progress without all those thousands of days. And you definitely don’t get them if you don’t keep the American people not only apprised of what you’re doing, but activated in the cause.
Did you ever run out of words?
It could feel that way. I write in the book about how neither Obama nor I wanted to write a eulogy after the terror attack in Charleston. We had already written too many eulogies after mass shootings. We had a passionate debate in the Oval Office just four days before the eulogy where, for the only time, he said, “We have run out of words.”
But ultimately, he found the words. He even sang them. And they were inspired by the families of the Charleston Nine.
So I don’t actually believe you can run out of words. Inspiration can come from anywhere – whether an extraordinary act of grace, or a clumsy attempt at birtherism from a washed-up politician.
The book contains the most candid and poignant assessments of the way Obama dealt with race as President that we have yet read. This is one area of his presidency that has not yet really been dealt with in depth by commentators and it’s a little early for historians. How did the President’s speeches work through this issue?
Honestly. Which sometimes in politics is the most shocking thing of all. Think about the “race speech” in Philadelphia in the heat of the 2008 primary campaign. What kind of politician says, “I want to give a long and honest speech on race before the next primary?”
That honesty wasn’t just found in explaining the Black experience to the rest of the country, as bracing as that could be. In the “race speech,” he took pains to identify with and explain white grievance to the rest of the country, and tie people together across race and class to push back on the real roadblocks to progress. In his speech on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, he added in some pointed criticisms as to where the civil rights movement had fallen short in the decades since, and where it could regain its footing as the country’s conscience.
Above all, he practiced a politics of reconciliation, not recrimination. He didn’t blame us for the sins of the past or scold us for our beliefs. That doesn’t work. Instead, he gave us the chance to change for the better by pointing out that at our best, that’s what America has always done. It might not always be satisfying. But it was what made him the first Democrat in more than four decades to win states like Indiana and North Carolina – and the first president since Eisenhower to win 51% of the vote twice.
The Charleston speech and the Selma speech – and also the race speech in Philadelphia – are some of the most direct and deep explanations of race in American life and politics in recent decades. Obama explains the Black experience to the rest of the country and sometimes vice-versa. You were instrumental in the first two. What do you hope future Americans will take away from these speeches in decades to come?
What Obama did with the Charleston speech – and he tore up the second half of my draft – was a prime example of the politics of reconciliation. He used the lyrics to “Amazing Grace” to build a structure for the back half of the speech that gave people the chance to see where, perhaps, we’ve been blind and change our minds. It’s a tone that I think our best politicians can reach.
But I really hope his speech in Selma is the one that shows up in textbooks someday. It told the story of America in a fuller, truer way, with a broader cast of characters that more of us can see ourselves in. In that speech, he wanted to give today’s young generation its marching orders. And what could be more important than protecting this multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multi-everything democracy – this beautiful mess – and proving that it can work in a way that lives up to our founding ideals?