The weekend before Election Day 2012, White House speechwriter Cody Keenan MPP 2008 accompanied President Obama to a campaign event at a high school gym in Mentor, Ohio. He stood to the right of the stage with senior Obama aides David Axelrod and David Plouffe. At the other side of the stage, volunteers held placards that spelled out O-H-I-O and O-B-A-M-A. The man who introduced the president to the audience was Kevin Potter, whose eight-year-old daughter Erin has leukemia. Keenan listened as Potter recounted how the cost of his daughter’s treatment had been about to wipe out the family’s finances until the passage of the Affordable Care Act prevented their insurance carrier from dropping their coverage. There was hardly a dry eye in the room. “That was a pretty incredible moment,” Keenan says. A few days later on election night in Chicago, Keenan and his colleague Jon Favreau traveled with the president from the hotel to the victory party at McCormick Place, helping him weave that story into the acceptance speech watched by millions.
Telling stories like the Potters’ is one of the best parts of the job for Keenan. A member of Obama’s speechwriting team for the past six years, he gets energized by meeting people whose lives have been improved by policies he has helped the president promote. “Those are the times when you really see how special it is to work here,” he says.
Keenan, who was promoted to chief speechwriter in February 2013, is the ultimate behind-the-scenes guy, and he likes it that way. Veteran Washington staffers know that the first rule of any Capitol Hill or White House job is to stay out of the photo and out of the story. Nearly a decade ago Keenan was a mailroom intern in Senator Ted Kennedy’s office; having worked his way up from the bottom of the staffer totem pole, he avoids the limelight and the credit as a matter of both habit and temperament. He is at home in a windowless West Wing office that has one wall dedicated to Kennedy memorabilia, another to Chicago sports (he has a football signed by the ’85 Chicago Bears during a White House visit), and a third to an American flag made of reclaimed wood. Most days he’s at his desk by 7:45 AM and is lucky to leave by 7 PM. When the going gets tough, as it does a few times a year, he spends the night on the office couch.
For a speechwriter tasked with giving voice to the president’s thoughts, a love of anonymity is almost a job requirement. “The truth is that everything that comes out of the president’s mouth is eventually his,” Keenan says, making clear that there’s no room for pride of ownership in the speechwriting shop. “Our job is to sit down and write what the president would write if he had unlimited time to do it. It’s not to get our own viewpoint across or make our own arguments. If he wasn’t busy running the country, if he could sit down for a couple of days, what would he write?”
If this sounds like an exercise in mind reading, sometimes it can be. The exact level of the president’s involvement in the process varies from speech to speech, depending on everything from the issue to the turnaround time. “It’s important to get his download on the front end,” Keenan says. “I’ll just sit there furiously typing while he talks, and usually he’ll just kind of lay out a structure that’s really easy to put some meat on. He’s a very logical, linear thinker.” Keenan and his team will then develop a draft, and in most cases the president will mark it up with edits. Occasionally the speechwriters are wide of the mark. “Sometimes you’ll get it back with his pen all over it — or a ‘See me,’ just like in school,” Keenan jokes. “That is never good.”
One thing Keenan learned early on was that Obama did not want old-fashioned oratory or snappy one-liners from the speechwriting team: “He is not a big fan of the pithy sound bite.” Keenan’s straightforward approach to his craft reflects his boss’s philosophy. “He’s always believed that the American people are smarter than Washington gives them credit for, and if you just talk to them on the level, they’ll get it,” Keenan says. “Don’t try to put too glossy a sheen on anything. You talk to them where they are. That’s the best way to connect.”
The challenge of finding the right words for the president is magnified by Obama’s own considerable abilities with a pen — he is, after all, a former Harvard Law Review editor who published his memoir Dreams from My Father a decade before emerging on the national stage as a political figure. “I’m not sure people know how involved he is with his own speeches,” Keenan says. “I think most people probably have a sense of it, but he really is in there from start to finish, especially on the bigger ones. He just pours himself into it.” Before Obama spoke about the mass shootings in Tucson and Newtown, Keenan received several handwritten pages on yellow legal paper from the president. “Rather than just edits, there were whole sections he wanted to add. With the ones that are very, very personal, it has to come from him.”
Speechwriting wasn’t on Keenan’s radar when he got his start in politics as a mailroom intern. Senator Kennedy’s office did not have a dedicated speechwriter — a longtime legislative director acted as editor in chief. Keenan wrote a couple of pieces that caught the senator’s attention, which led to a handful of assignments during his three and a half years in the office. “It was maybe six speeches total,” Keenan recalls. In the fall of 2006, he left Washington and headed to the Kennedy School, fully intending to return to the senator’s office after graduation.
In the spring of his first year as an MPP student, Keenan connected with Stephanie Cutter, a fellow veteran of Senator Kennedy’s office, when she was on campus to deliver a talk at the Institute of Politics. While they were catching up over a beer, Cutter suggested that Keenan volunteer with the Obama campaign, which at the time had two overworked speechwriters in need of an intern. Keenan hadn’t considered the possibility before, but he was open to it. Cutter knew Obama’s first speechwriter, Jon Favreau, from John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, and she made the connection for Keenan.
On the drive from Boston to Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago, Keenan listened to audio versions of Obama’s books Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope to help get his new boss’s voice into his head. After reaching Chicago, he spent a sleepless night watching all Obama’s speeches online. This crash course was just the beginning of a gradual process of becoming familiar with Obama’s voice. “It’s only by virtue of watching him deliver speeches, getting his edits and seeing how he thinks, and listening to him speak when you’re talking to him,” Keenan says. “Eventually, you start to hear it in your own head while you’re writing. It just takes time, like anything else.”
At summer’s end, Keenan had to decide whether to return to the Kennedy School in the fall or stay with the campaign. On the one hand, he had wholly dedicated himself to the candidate. “Here’s a guy who was fresh and different, and I actually believed — and I still do believe — in what he was selling,” he says. “And I wanted to help him sell it.” On the other hand, the junior senator from Illinois still looked like a long-shot candidate, and Keenan had already made a significant investment in his education. He reluctantly packed his bags and headed back to Cambridge, hoping he hadn’t made the mistake of a lifetime.
Then Obama’s campaign took America by surprise. Much to his relief, Keenan’s colleagues on the speechwriting team wanted him back as soon as he finished school. He returned to work just days after graduation and has been there since. “This is technically my first speechwriting job,” he quips. “It’s like the gentleman jockey who wins the Derby.”
If there is an undercurrent running through Keenan’s experience working for both Senator Kennedy and President Obama, it is a commitment to health care reform. “That was something that Ted Kennedy worked on for decades, and just having worked for him, it was something I was passionate about,” he says. Keenan identifies the passage of the Affordable Care Act by Congress as the high point of his time at the White House. “We had two years of terrible fighting and we lost the House [in the 2010 midterm elections] because of it, but all that was worth it in that moment.”
He knows from meeting families like the Potters that the law has made a difference in their lives. Often people facing insurmountable medical bills will write to the president when they have nowhere else to turn. Keenan has the opportunity to respond to some of these letters, asking permission for the president to share these deeply personal stories with the rest of the world. “The best are when the letters say ‘I know no one will ever read this letter,’ and you just give them a call and say ‘I read your letter.’”
Keenan on speechwriting
“Approach a speech as if you were making an argument to a friend of yours. You’re not going to do a huge long windup. You’re just going to say, ‘Look, here’s the problem, here’s the solution to it.’ If you can think about it like that, it’s actually much easier to sit down and write.
“Other than being able to write well, the most important thing for a speechwriter to have is a sense of empathy. I haven’t lived everyone’s experiences, but I’ve still got to do my best to write in a way that speaks to them. And I draw from people I know or meet. Friends who lost their jobs in the recession and knew the deep anger or self-doubt that came with that. Friends who served in Iraq or Afghanistan and believe in the mission and want us to do right by their families and fellow service members. Friends who are gay and just want to be treated the same as everyone else under the law. Your writing always ends up being better if you can channel some real emotion into it — and oftentimes, emotion comes from understanding.
“Find a candidate you believe in, or someone who’s already elected who you believe in, and see if they need a little help. Or join a fledgling campaign with someone who sees the world the way you do and believes in the things that you do, because your work will be much more fulfilling that way.
“And just write, write, write.”
Matt Kohut MC/MPA 2003 is a partner at KNP Communications, in Washington, DC.
Photo above: Official White House Photo/Pete Souza