Irish-American ‘Hemingway’ crafting message for Obama
President’s St Patrick’s Day speech his 30th set of remarks geared for an Irish audience
President Barack Obama consults with director of speechwriting Cody Keenan and senior presidential speechwriter David Litt in the Oval Office
As Barack Obama’s director of speechwriting, Keenan runs the machine that churns out the public words for the 44th president of the United States.
The 35-year-old White House aide took a break one morning last week to talk to The Irish Times in his West Wing office.
Not that he’s busy. He’s only working on remarks for Obama’s upcoming trips to Cuba – the first by a US president since 1928 – and a follow-on visit to Argentina, an economic speech and remarks for the St Patrick’s Day visit by acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Oh, and there’s the small matter of planning a wedding this summer to fellow White House staffer, Kristen Bartoloni.
“The secret is the president is actually our chief speechwriter so we will get everything from him, especially for a speech like the state of the union,” said Keenan, explaining the process of writing speeches for an American president.
A proud Irish American from Chicago with roots in Dublin and Cork, Keenan (35) says by his count tomorrow will be the 30th set of remarks prepared for an Irish audience during Obama’s years in the White House.
“Fortunately, it is Ireland so you are never at a loss for good inspiration or quotable poets or authors,” said the writer who started his political career in 2003 as an unpaid worker in Senator Ted Kennedy’s post room.
In the early drafting for a speech, the president sometimes asks Keenan to dig out a poem or piece of scripture. Obama’s favourite poet is William Butler Yeats so the Nobel laureate’s lines regularly feature. The president quoted another Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, twice in an emotional eulogy last year to Biden’s son Beau, including a line from Kavanagh’s On Raglan Road.
It was an important, personal speech for Obama and Keenan enlisted help. He called his friend, the New York-based Irish novelist Colum McCann.
“He suggested Kavanagh,” said Keenan. “He suggested that particular line: ‘I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.’ As soon as he told me that, I said, ‘that’s gorgeous.’ ”
Keenan and another senior Obama adviser Ben Rhodes feature briefly as fictional characters in McCann’s latest novel.
The president occasionally calls the bearded, former high-school quarterback “Hemingway.” (“Only when he’s teasing,” said Keenan.) One US media outlet has described him as the “Springsteen” of Obama’s writing team because of the references to everyday Americans he includes in speeches.
“Hey, I’ll take that,” said a pleased Keenan.
Among the everyman American stories that have featured in a recent speech were those of immigrants, a topic the White House has returned to in response to the virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Republican presidential race. The old “No Irish Need Apply” signs have been recalled.
“Immigration has always been a bizarre thing. You shouldn’t have to explain to people that all of us come from somewhere else,” said Keenan.
“I started out working for Ted Kennedy for four years and he would always do a ‘Legalise the Irish’ thing on every St Patrick’s Day. That is what people forget - we are not just talking about Mexicans when we talk about immigration reform. We are talking about us.”
Of all Obama’s speeches, two stand out for Keenan. He remembers the address the president delivered on College Green in Dublin in 2011. A framed copy of special The Irish Times supplement on the visit, with a photograph of Obama addressing the crowd, hangs on the wall of the writer’s office.
“It is not one of his speeches that will go down in history here but there are a few speeches that I just loved writing throughout. It was such a special day. The rain cleared out right before they [Obama and Kenny] started speaking,” he said.
Keenan’s favourite is the president’s speech at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in March 2015, marking the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march that transformed the 1960s civil rights movement. He loves it because it told “the true story of America.”
“The people on this bridge with few rights, no power, standing up to weapons and intolerance managed to shake the conscience of an entire nation and make it better,” he said.
“That’s not just something we have seen with civil rights but immigrant rights and gay rights and workers’ rights. America is the story of people, including the Irish who have gradually fought, toiled, pushed against the system until it became a little better, until it became the America as it should be.”
On the daunting task of writing for such a great orator, Keenan says imagine writing for someone whose 1995 book Dreams From My Father was last month ranked by The Guardian as the fifth best non-fiction ever.
“It makes our job harder but it also makes our job much easier because we know he is there to give us a steer on the front side or put us back on the right course half-way through or step in and save it if he has to,” he said.
At a time when party divisions have paralysed the business of government, miring Congress and the White House in a political quicksand, Keenan admits the the power of the presidential bully pulpit is “just not what it used to be” with Twitter, a thousand TV channels and the drowning chatter.
He cites the example of gun control where, in the aftermath of repeated incidents of horrific gun violence, Obama was unable to convince enough US senators (60 was the number needed) to pass tighter rules, despite polls showing that 90 per cent of Americans supported background checks on gun purchases.
“But at the same time it’s what will endure 30, 40, 50 years from now, 100 years from now,” he said, of the president’s speeches.
“People won’t be looking to see what the most retweeted tweets were or the most clever blog posts; they will be looking back to see what the great speeches of the age were, what the great investigative journalism of the day was, so it is what will matter in the longer run.”