Reading the President’s Mind

Longtime Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau reflects on rhetoric at Harvard Kennedy School

March 29, 2013
by Katie Koch, Harvard Gazette

Jon Favreau has been called the president’s mind reader, by none other than Barack Obama himself. But during a visit to Harvard Kennedy School on Wednesday, the former director of speechwriting at the White House — a veteran of both of Obama’s presidential campaigns — stressed that there’s nothing supernatural about the day-to-day grind of putting words in the mouth of the commander in chief.

“Your only goals are to clearly explain simple policies in as little words as possible, and then spend as much time as you can … inspiring people,” Favreau said.

Favreau sat down in the packed John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum for a conversation with David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership and himself a onetime presidential speechwriter — for Richard Nixon. (Gergen was also an adviser for Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.)

It was a fitting venue, given that Favreau’s relationship with Obama closely parallels that of John F. Kennedy and his famous speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, Gergen said. Indeed, just as Sorensen helped Kennedy develop his distinctive voice while working closely with him during his Senate career, Favreau crossed paths with Obama at a similar turning point.

The two met when Favreau was only 22, the day Obama was set to give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, a speech that would catapult him to national prominence. Favreau’s role in that moment was less than illustrious, he said.

His job, as a staffer for presidential nominee John Kerry, was to ask Obama to remove a line from his speech so that Kerry could use it instead.

“He’s like, who the hell is this kid?” Favreau recalled of Obama’s reaction. “I thought that was the last I’d ever hear from Barack Obama.” But after Kerry lost in November: “I had no job, and I got an email from [Obama adviser Robert] Gibbs that said, ‘It turns out Barack Obama needs a speechwriter.’”

Favreau became the Illinois senator’s only speechwriter. Before a speech they would sit in Obama’s office “and he would talk for 20 or 30 minutes and I would type as fast as I could,” Favreau said. (“I’m a horrible note taker,” he explained. “My penmanship’s like a second grader’s.”)

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Jon Favreau

Former presidential speechwriter Jon Favreau (L) speaks with Prof. David Gergen (R) at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum
Photo Credit: Katherine Taylor, Harvard Gazette

“[President Obama is] the least remote person I could imagine,” Favreau said. “He’s warm, he’s friendly, he’s patient. He’s never — in all the stress he’s been under, in all the situations he’s been in — yelled at me, raised his voice, walked out of a room really angry.”