The 27-year-old with history at his fingertips

Wed, Jan 21, 2009, 00:00

“There’s a lot weighing on his shoulders” – Eli Saslowprofiles Obama’s speechwriter

THE JOB requires him to work unnoticed, even in plain view, so Jon Favreau settles into a wooden chair at a busy Starbucks in Penn Quarter, in Washington DC. A deadline looms, and he needs to write at least half a page by the end of the day. As the espresso machines whir, Favreau opens his laptop, calls up a document titled “rough draft of inaugural” and goes to work on the most anticipated speech of Barack Obama’s life.

During the campaign, the buzz-cut 27-year-old helped write and edit some of the most memorable speeches of any recent presidential candidate. Now Favreau will join the president’s staff as the youngest person ever to be selected as chief speechwriter. He helps shape almost every word Obama says, yet the two men have formed a concert so harmonised that Favreau’s own voice disappears.

“He looks like he’s in college and everybody calls him Favs, so you’re like, ‘This guy can’t be for real, right?’ ” said Ben Rhodes, another Obama speechwriter. “But it doesn’t take long to realise that he’s totally synced up with Obama . . . He has access to everything and everybody. There’s a lot weighing on his shoulders.”

Especially now. Three months ago, Favreau lived in a group house with six friends in Chicago, where he rarely shaved, never cooked and sometimes stayed up to play video games. Now, he has transformed into what one friend called a “Washington political force” – a minor celebrity with a down-payment on a Dupont Circle condo, whose silly Facebook photos with a Hillary Rodham Clinton cutout created what passes for controversy in Obama’s largely drama-free transition.

Favreau moves while he writes to avoid becoming stale – from the Starbucks, to his windowless transition office, to his new, one-bedroom flat, where the only furniture in place is a blow-up mattress on the hardwood floor. He sometimes writes until 2 or 3am, fuelled by double espresso shots and Red Bull. When deadline nears, a speech consumes him until he works 16-hour days and forgets to call home, do his laundry or pay his bills. He calls it “crashing”.

Favreau recently met Obama and adviser David Axelrod, as is their habit before important speeches. Obama told him to make the inaugural address no longer than 15 or 20 minutes, and, Favreau said, they agreed to theme it around “this moment that we’re in, and the idea that America was founded on certain ideals that we need to take back”.

He then went on holiday. During his vacation, Favreau e-mailed notes to himself via Blackberry while visiting friends in Manhattan and talked about structure at his family’s Thanksgiving dinner in November. He listened to recordings of past inaugural addresses and met Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, to seek advice. One of Favreau’s assistants researched other periods in history when the US faced crises; another interviewed historians.

Even more daunting is the list of things Favreau can’t think about as he writes the speech. He went for a run to the Lincoln Memorial last month and stopped in his tracks when he imagined the Washington Mall packed with three million people listening to some of his words. A few weeks later, Favreau winced when Obama spokesman Bill Burton reminded him: “Dude, what you’re writing is going to be hung up in people’s living rooms!”

“If you start thinking about what’s at stake, it can get paralysing,” Favreau said.

Obama sometimes jokes that Favreau is not so much a speechwriter as a mind reader. He carries Obama’s 1995 autobiography, Dreams from My Father, with him almost everywhere and has memorised most of his famous keynote speech from the 2004 Democratic national convention. He has mastered Obama’s writing style – short, elegant sentences – and internalised his tendency towards reflection and ideological balance.

In four years together, Obama and Favreau have perfected their writing process. Before most speeches, Obama meets Favreau for an hour to explain what he wants to say. Favreau types notes on his laptop and takes a crack at the first draft. Obama edits and rewrites portions himself – he is the better writer, Favreau insists – and they usually work through final revisions together. If Favreau looks stressed, Obama sometimes reassures him: “Don’t worry. I’m a writer, too, and I know that sometimes the muse hits you and sometimes it doesn’t. We’ll figure it out together.”

They met in 2004 when Obama, just elected to the Senate, needed a speechwriter. He brought Favreau, then 23, into the Senate dining room for an interview. They talked for 30 minutes before Obama turned serious.

“So,” he said. “What’s your theory on speechwriting?”

Awkward silence. Favreau, who had just graduated from Holy Cross, had talked his way into Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2003 and had become a press assistant. The speech he had given as class valedictorian circulated around the staff, and Favreau eventually got a shot at speechwriting. He wrote well and rose to the top of the department, but there was never any time to formulate theories. Now, Favreau looked at Obama and went with his gut.

“A speech can broaden the circle of people who care about this stuff,” Favreau said. “How do you say to the average person that’s been hurting: ‘I hear you. I’m there. Even though you’ve been so disappointed and cynical about politics in the past, and with good reason, we can move in the right direction. Just give me a chance’.”

“I think this is going to work,” Obama said.

Favreau worked for more than two years in Obama’s Senate office before moving to Chicago to help with the presidential campaign. He hired speechwriters Rhodes and Adam Frankel – and, a year later, former Clinton speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz – and together they crafted the speeches Obama delivered on the night of each primary.

One Saturday night in March, Obama called Favreau and said he wanted to immediately deliver a speech about race. He dictated his unscripted thoughts to Favreau over the phone for 30 minutes – “It would have been a great speech right then,” Favreau said – and then asked him to clean it up and write a draft. Favreau put it together, and Obama spent two nights retooling before delivering the address in Philadelphia on the following Tuesday.

“So,” Obama told Favreau afterwards, “I think that worked.”

Favreau wrote a first draft of the Democratic national convention acceptance speech, but his boss thought it lacked direction. Obama rewrote it, and it ended up almost 15 minutes too long. Favreau spent three days travelling across the country with Obama so they could trim the speech, editing until a few hours before Obama stepped to the lectern in front of more than 84,000 people in Denver.

For election day, Favreau wrote two speeches – one in case of a win and another for a loss. After Obama learned that he had won Pennsylvania and essentially secured the presidency, he called Favreau to make final word edits on the victory address.

“Okay, this all sounds good,” Favreau said when Obama finished making his changes. “And hopefully we never have to think about that other one again.”

All told, Favreau spent more than 18 months on almost constant deadline, staying up until 5am during the financial crisis to craft speeches for the next day and waking up at 8am to obsess over the daily tracking polls, which he started calling “daily crack”.

When the pressure wore on Favreau, he unwound like a 27-year-old, sending prank e-mails to friends at the Obama offices or playing the video game Rock Band in the Lincoln Park house he shared with six campaign staffers. He called his best friend, Josh Porter, when he felt ready to break down.

“A few times he called at midnight, sounding just done,” Porter recalled. “He would be like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore. I’m in over my head. I’m starting to freak out.’ ”

But there were also moments of euphoria, when Favreau would catch himself choking up while riding in the motorcade or rehearsing with Obama backstage. Before he entered Grant Park on election night, to stand in the VIP section with his parents and younger brother to hear Obama speak, Favreau sent a quick e-mail to Porter at 9:07 p.m. The subject line read: “Dude”.

“We won,” Favreau wrote. “Oh my God.”