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The President’s Pen: Obama Speechwriter Cody Keenan Shares Why Powerful Moments Require More Than Words

For 14 years, Keenan was Obama’s speechwriter, a role he maintained post-presidency, until 2020, when he decided to try something new. Well, sort of new. He joined Fenway Strategies, a speechwriting consultancy made up of many former Obama staffers.

“We meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds,” begins John F. Kennedy’s address at Rice University, also known as the Moon Shot speech.

It happens to be Cody Keenan’s favorite speech, ever, by anyone. And that includes the many speeches he wrote for another gifted presidential orator, Barack Obama. “It’s so implausibly ambitious,” Keenan said about Kennedy’s words. “He just flat out says we’re going to go to the moon before the end of this decade. Think about how absurd that is. We barely had a space program, and he’s like we’re going to put a man on the moon. But the speech is not just ambitious, it’s joyful, it’s fun, and colorful. And by the end of it, you believe it. The craziest thing about that speech is that it came true.”

In other words, it had the audacity of hope.

For 14 years, Keenan was Obama’s speechwriter, first as an intern on his early campaign, then in the White House. In Obama’s second term, Keenan became chief speechwriter, a role he maintained post-presidency, until 2020, when he decided to try something new. Well, sort of. He joined Fenway Strategies, a speechwriting consultancy made up of many former Obama staffers.

Fenway crafts language–mostly speeches, campaign talks, policy talking points, annual reports, commencement addresses–for progressive candidates, officeholders, nonprofit leaders, and choice corporate executives. Keenan can’t disclose the agency’s clients, of course. (“Part of speechwriting is that we’re not really seen or heard. No one wants to admit they have a speechwriter, even though everyone worth their salt does.”) But he’s adamant that he’s been able to maintain his progressive bona fides. “We’re very choosy,” Keenan says about Fenway’s roster. “All of us are from progressive politics in one way or another. We’re not going to work for anyone who’s destroying the planet or ruining working families’ lives or anything like that.”

Cody Keenan
Cody Keenan

Yet it’s not policy that motivates Keenan’s speechwriting, it’s the opportunity for connection, to motivate and move an audience, which, as he says, “is a terrible thing to waste.”

“Anybody can write a speech about policy or an announcement of some kind, but if you’re just going through the motions, ticking off talking points and deliverables, it can be really boring. If you make an audience feel something, that’s when speechwriting comes alive in a way other writing doesn’t.”

When working with Obama, Keenan said the president always led with the question, “What’s the story we’re trying to tell?” Then they’d work to establish that narrative. “You always had policy staff asking, ‘Hey, can you put this in?’ Not if it doesn’t fit. Everything has to be true to the story you’re trying to tell,” Keenan says about his process with Obama. “Then you sit down and come up with a structure, that’s the second thing that I would do, because you need the speech to hold together. Next, I’d start writing. Maybe 10 percent of any speech process is just the first draft. The other 90 percent is revising and making it better and taking that misshapen hunk of clay and hopefully turning it into something beautiful. That’s when you can really focus on the emotional moments. And my favorite way to do that is to include someone else’s story.”

Every night during Obama’s two terms, the president would read seven to 10 letters from American citizens. Often Keenan wove those letter writers into policy talks or even State of the Union addresses. “Sometimes they were happy with him, sometimes they weren’t. But you could usually pick up something really smart out of each one,” Keenan recalls. “It was usually just people wanting him to know what their lives were like.”

In Keenan’s new book, Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America, debuting this fall, he goes deep into the impact the words of ordinary citizens had on a president whose own speech had a preternatural ability to soothe and inspire. Grace covers just ten days in 2015, during Obama’s second term, days that contained some of the most transformative developments in his presidency (including the Supreme Court's rulings to uphold marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act). It begins with the mass shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Church and ends with the president’s eulogy for the victims over a week later, when the most powerful man in the world broke into an emotional rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

President Barack Obama and Cody Keenan work on a speech in the Oval Office.

As Keenan tells it, Obama originally had not wanted to give that eulogy, frustrated as he was with the Senate’s inability to pass gun background check legislation following the slaughter of children at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. “He and I had run out of things to say after mass shootings, which is a terrible thing to say,” Keenan explains. “I think we wrote about 14 statements after mass shootings.”

What changed the president’s mind were the victim statements by family members at the shooter’s arraignment, where many expressed forgiveness. “The president was stunned by it. He finally gave in and said, ‘If I do speak that’s what I want to talk about, the concept of race.’ He was the one who added ‘Amazing Grace’ to the eulogy: we can see now where we’ve been wrong and how we can do better.”

That idea of doing better inspired Keenan’s book, as well as his work at Fenway, and his teaching at Northwestern University.

“Part of writing it was to remind people that this was just seven years ago. It’s still possible. But like the president always said, progress doesn’t travel in a straight line. Sometimes for every one step forward you take two steps back. Democracy is a constant struggle. And the people that actually do stick with it for 50 years, even if they’re dead wrong on everything, are ultimately the ones that prevail.”

Britt Burritt
Britt Burritt
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