Cody Keenan: How I wrote Barack Obama’s speeches
. . .which he then rewrote. The ex-president’s speechwriter reveals their collaborative art
US president Barack Obama addressing members of the public at Gollege Green, Dublin, during a ceremony as part of his visit to Ireland in May 2011. Photograph: Alan Betson
My family left Ireland for America seven generations ago. To the best of our knowledge, Patrick Keenan left Cork sometime in the 1770s. He was counted in the first American census. His son, Peter Keenan, was born in America. On my mother’s side, John McThomas left Dublin around the same time, fought for America in the Revolution, and was buried in a national cemetery in Ohio.
As far as I know, I was the first in my family, on either side, to return. My first visit was with my best friend back in 2005. We were broke, relied on the kindness of strangers and camped wherever we could – a town park in Kinsale, a beach outside Galway, a farm in Dingle.
My second visit, in May 2011, was a bit different. Surely, it was something my ancestors could not imagine. I flew over in a highly modified 747, crossing the sea they had sailed, with the first black president of a country they helped settle. Hundreds of people were lined up along Moneygall village’s main street, waving Irish and American flags.
Barack Obama is two generations closer to Ireland than I am. And I know people have a laugh at how Moneygall has made the most of that relationship. But it is not a relationship that should be discounted.
Much has been made of his Kenyan ancestry. But remember, he only met his father twice. He was raised by his white mother and white grandparents. That side of his family is one he holds just as dear. Moneygall’s favourite great-great-great-grandson really does have a soft spot for Ireland and its people. He revealed as much in his address to the people of Ireland that day, delivered to a throng that had gathered along Dublin’s College Green:
It was remarkable to see the small town where a young shoemaker named Falmouth Kearney, my great-great-great-grandfather, lived his early life. He left during the Great Hunger, as so many Irish did, to seek a new life in the New World. He travelled by ship to New York, where he entered himself into the records as a ‘labourer’. He married an American girl from Ohio. They settled in the Midwest. They started a family.
It’s a familiar story, one lived and cherished by Americans of all backgrounds. It’s integral to our national identity. It’s who we are – a nation of immigrants from all over the world…
We call it the American Dream. It is the dream that drew Falmouth Kearney to America from a small village in Ireland. It is the dream that drew my own father to America from a small village in Africa. It is a dream that we have carried forward, sometimes through stormy waters, sometimes at great cost, for more than two centuries.
It’s not something he would have imagined when he was a young Chicago politician, bringing up the rear of the St Patrick’s Day parade, followed only by the sanitation workers picking up the pieces. It is not something that, for my first 26 years or so, I could have imagined, either.
Growing up, I had always taken a keen interest in politics, because my parents argued about it on a regular basis – but I began university with plans of becoming a surgeon. Chemistry class altered those plans pretty quickly. I dedicated myself instead to political science, and after graduation, I moved to Washington DC.
After a dozen failed interviews, I finally became one of 100 interns under someone for whom I will always be grateful: John F Kennedy’s kid brother, Ted. It remains my best political learning experience.
I was at the Democratic Convention in 2004 when a young state senator from Illinois introduced himself to the country. I must have talked about that speech a lot, because that is when I got my shot. One day, my overworked boss poked his head around the corner and asked, “hey, can you write a speech?”
I had never considered speechwriting. But I lied and said yes. I stayed up all night panicking my way through it. That one led to a few more. And eventually, a colleague connected me with senator Obama’s chief speechwriter Jon Favreau. We hit it off, and I became an intern all over again, this time in Chicago, on an upstart presidential campaign; this time the only intern.
And as our poll numbers rose, and our crowds grew, so did my opportunities to write. We won and went to the White House. I moved into a West Wing office with Jon. And I never stopped working my tail off so that when he left, and Obama had to choose a new chief speechwriter, I was the only choice to take his place.
In less than 10 years, I went from mailroom intern in Congress to chief speechwriter in the White House.
What goes into a good speech? Well, the first thing I can tell you is that there’s no alchemy to it; no magic formula. It’s more art than science, and after 3,577 speeches in the White House, I admit a lot of it is not art, either. I have been fortunate, though, to work for someone who views it as a craft; as a way to organise his thoughts into a coherent argument and present them to the world. He takes it seriously. He was anonymous when he walked into that Boston hall in 2004, and a political rock star when he walked out. That is what a speech can do.
To this day, by the way, he reminds me that he wrote that one by himself. All the time.
He’s a frighteningly good writer, which makes my job both harder and easier. Harder because I will stay up all night to get him a draft he will be happy with. Easier because if I do not hit the mark, he is there to back me up. And when it came to any speech of consequence, President Obama was actively involved in the product. We would often begin the process for big speeches by sitting down with him in the Oval Office. We called it “The Download”. He would walk us through what was on his mind, what he wanted to say, and we would type as fast as possible.
He would always begin with the question, “what story are we trying to tell?”
Once we got his download, we would get to work, and get him a draft. He would often work on it himself until well past midnight. And this may sound counter-intuitive, but it was always a good thing to hear that he had a lot of edits. It did not mean he disliked what we put down. It meant we gave him what he needed to do the job.
When I was drafting the Charleston eulogy, for example – the speech in which he sang Amazing Grace – I stayed up for three days straight trying to make it perfect. I handed the draft to him the afternoon before the speech and went home to sleep. Right before I turned in, I got an email from him asking me to come back and meet him at 11 o’clock that night.
He told me he liked the first two pages. But he had rewritten the next two pages in just a few hours. It was annoying. Still, I apologised for what I saw as letting him down. But he stopped me and said, “Brother, we are collaborators. You gave me what I needed. The muse hit. And when you have been thinking about this stuff for 40 years, you will know what you want to say, too.”
Jon was good at building the big case and laying out the big argument. That was not my strength. I went for people’s guts. I wanted to build moral and emotional cases. I wanted to make people feel something. A sense of connection. A sense of belonging. A sense of being heard. That’s a pretty important part of storytelling.
And I think the best story we ever told came in a 2015 speech in Selma, Alabama.
In 1965, a group of mostly black Americans set out to march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery to demand their right to vote. They barely made it across the town bridge before their non-violent protest was met with violent resistance. The images shocked the conscience of the country and pushed President Johnson to call for a Voting Rights Act.
The idea that just 50 years later, a black president would return to commemorate what they did was extraordinary enough. We could have gone with a safe, simple speech commemorating the anniversary. People would have understood the symbolism. It would have been enough.
But the week before, a Republican politician went on television and said this: “I know this is a terrible thing to say . . . ” By the way, if you begin a thought that way, you don’t have to finish it. Free advice. But he continued, “I do not believe that the President loves America . . . He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up, through love of this country.”
I was pissed about it. It was more dog whistle nonsense designed to delegitimise the first African American president – and, I might add, the first president to win more than 51 per cent of the vote twice since Dwight Eisenhower almost 60 years earlier.
“No Drama Obama”, true to form, was not ruffled. He thought it was a comment that merited no response. He did, however, think it was an idea worth taking on. Who gets to decide what it means to love America? Who gets to decide who belongs and who does not? Who gets to decide what patriotism is all about? And we came up with the thesis of that speech:
What could be more American than what happened in this place? What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people, the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many, coming together to shape their country’s course?
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?
The rest of that half hour made up my favourite speech. It was our purest collaboration. At one point, I made a joke that our story is too often told, in political speeches at least, as if the Founding Fathers set everything up, some Irish and Italians came over, we beat the Nazis, and here we are. But there is more to our story than that. This felt more complete, more honest. He said well, let’s include some characters from our story. “Go come up with some America.”
I grabbed my speechwriters, and we came up with: “Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, and entrepreneurs and hucksters. Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Susan B Anthony, women who could do as much as any man and then some.” We made it a big open casting call:
Immigrants and Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. Slaves and ranch hands and cowboys and labourers and organisers.
The GIs who liberated a continent and the Tuskeegee Airmen, and Navajo code-talkers, and the Japanese Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied. The firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11. The volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. The gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down that bridge.
The inventors of gospel and jazz and blues, bluegrass and country, and hip-hop and rock and roll, all our very own sound with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.
That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing. We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes.
If there is one Obama speech I could make people watch, that is it. It was the best, most joyous distillation of the way he sees what this country is and can be. It was the idea that through the hard work of self-government, generations of Americans, often young Americans, often without power or title, often at great risk to themselves, have looked upon our flaws and worked to widen the circle of our founding ideals until they include everybody, and not just some.
That is how I see politics. This collective endeavour; the balance between the realism to see the world as it is, and the idealism to fight for the world as it should be anyway.
It was the exhausting, fulfilling work of those 2,922 days in the White House that gave my career meaning. But when I feel the tugging temptation of cynicism, I reach for my proof point that this whole messy endeavour of democracy can work: the 10 most hopeful days I ever saw in politics.
They began in the darkest way imaginable – a mass shooting in the basement of a Charleston church. A black church. It threatened to reopen the kinds of wounds and spark the kinds of recrimination we saw more recently in Charlottesville. But it did not unfold that way. The families of the victims forgave their killer in court. Then, there was a public recognition of the pain that the Confederate flag stirs in so many citizens, and actual introspection and self-examination that we too rarely see in public life, to the point where that flag finally came down from the South Carolina state capitol.
At the same time, it was a week when the supreme court could rule on any case, at any time, with no heads up. So while we worked on the president’s eulogy for Charleston, we were busy drafting several other statements in case he had to speak quickly.
Thursday morning, boom: Obamacare was upheld as constitutional for the second time. Obama spoke. Friday morning, boom: marriage equality becomes a reality in America. Obama spoke. An hour later, we boarded Marine One to fly to Air Force One, which would ferry us to Charleston.
I was still working in his changes to the eulogy for that afternoon. He had added the lyrics to Amazing Grace overnight. And just before he stepped off the helicopter, he turned and said, “you know, if it feels right, I might sing it”. Exhausted, I simply said “okay”. And that night, we returned to a White House that was no longer white – but bathed in the colours of the rainbow. We wrote 10 speeches in those 10 days – plus a few that never had to see the light of day.
Those 10 days were on my mind as I added these words to President Obama’s farewell address:
Ultimately, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life. If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organising. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Persevere. Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in others can be a risk, and there will be times when the process disappoints you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energise and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America – and in Americans – will be confirmed.
– Cody Keenan is a speechwriter who has worked with former US president Barack Obama for more than a decade. From Whence I Came – The Kennedy Legacy, Ireland and America, is edited by Brian Murphy & Donnacha Ó Beacháin. It is published by Merrion Press and dedicated to the memory of former Irish Times columnist Noel Whelan, 1968-2019