Cody Keenan Has Words for the President

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Cody Keenan dresses as a pirate to take part in a sight gag for the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.
Cody Keenan dresses as a pirate to take part in a sight gag for the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.
Lisa Stein

Even with the celebrity achieved by high-profile speechwriters such as Peggy Noonan and Chris Matthews, some accomplished authors still believe that speechwriters should be heard and not seen.

Cody Keenan is one of them.

Keenan’s mantra, which he takes from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Brownlow Committee Report of 1937, is telling. The report gave a recommendation of the ideal that the president’s aides should strive for: “They should be possessed of high competence … and a passion for anonymity.”

Keenan ’02, a member of President Obama’s speechwriting team, discovered in January that retaining anonymity in such a position can be harder than it looks. Keenan’s contribution to President Obama’s acclaimed speech in Tucson, Arizona, at the memorial service for victims of the January 2011 massacre, gained notice from several news sources, including The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago Sun-Times.

In the speech Obama called for the country to rise above nasty political rhetoric and honor the victims by finding a higher purpose. It resonated deeply for Americans, who were in need of healing after the horrific event in which six people, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, were killed and thirteen others, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, wounded. Noonan herself called the Tucson speech “large-spirited” and “more than moving.” On PBS Newshour, historian Ellen Fitzpatrick remarked, “I thought that this speech was a particularly personal speech on the president’s part … it was a little different, I think, from his other speeches. It was intensely personal, evoking the lives of the victims of this tragedy, describing the heroism of everyday Americans, and the theme of children.”

Keenan’s participation was revealed right after the speech, when White House press secretary Robert Gibbs announced to reporters on Air Force One that Keenan was the speechwriter. Keenan still downplays his involvement, calling it a “high-wire act.” He started writing on a Monday evening after a brief meeting with the President, made edits he received from Obama at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, and continued rewriting until that evening when Obama gave the speech.

“People were upset that the rhetoric and finger-pointing had gotten out of hand, and it felt like a moment for speaking to who we are as a nation and what we need to do,” Keenan says. “The truth is, President Obama rewrote a lot of it. We [speechwriters] don’t always hit the sweet spot, but the president knocked that one out of the park. It was one of those moments that reminded me why I chose to work for him in the first place.”

Keenan’s path to the White House was winding and unpredictable. His parents were advertising executives (his mother, Marilyn, was a Medill graduate) who moved with their young family from Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood to Evanston and then Wilmette, where he attended elementary and junior high school. Just before high school the family moved to Connecticut, where he played quarterback on the high school football team even after suffering a severe knee injury. Keenan was determined to return to Chicago. “Northwestern was the only school I applied to,” he notes.

Keenan began Northwestern as a pre-med sudent, wanting to become an orthopedic surgeon after his own experiences with surgery, but eventually switched to Chinese and, later, international studies. A devoted fan of the NBC television series The West Wing, Keenan switched his major a final time to political science. (He applied for a summer internship at the White House after his sophomore year but was rejected.) He recalls his history classes as giving him a good foundation for speechwriting, and particularly enjoyed Patricia Conley’s class on the presidency, which he called “fascinating.”

After graduating, he searched for a job in New York until a Sigma Chi fraternity brother who was teaching in Washington, D.C., told him, “Get down here—this is what you want to do.”

Then came months of pounding the pavement. “It took me a while of applying for jobs I was under-qualified for. Washington can be a tough town to break into.”

He finally found an unpaid position in the mailroom of Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s office, which he secured after calling the internship coordinator incessantly. “She was so desperate to get off the phone she finally said, ‘Can you start Monday?’”

After three months he filled an opening for staff assistant to Sen. Kennedy, and quickly moved on to become assistant to the director of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, on which Kennedy was the top Democrat. Keenan got his first shot at speechwriting with Kennedy. “I spent as much time as I could learning about policy and strategy and budget appropriations. It was a real crash course,” Keenan recalls. “There’s not time for anyone to walk you through all of it. And working for Senator Kennedy, you learn quickly that politics is not a game. It’s about public service—people’s lives are at stake.” Later, Keenan worked on Obama’s eulogy for Kennedy after the senator’s death in 2009.

About a year and a half later Keenan, who had been promoted to Kennedy’s legislative aide, decided to attend graduate school in public policy. Sen. Kennedy himself wrote Keenan a letter of recommendation, and he was accepted into Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. It was the summer of 2007, after his first year of study, when a mutual friend of Keenan and Jon Favreau, Obama’s chief speechwriter, helped Keenan land an internship with Obama’s campaign.

Keenan remembers nervously preparing for his first day on the job. “On the drive to Chicago I listened to Obama’s two books on tape, trying to get his voice in my head. I stayed up all night before my first day watching YouTube videos of him speaking and listened to the language and rhythms of his speech. It was pretty scary, and I didn’t want to let anyone down.”

His diligent preparation and hard work with Obama’s speechwriting team (a staff of two at the time) paid off. Even though Keenan decided to leave the campaign at the end of the summer to finish his degree at Harvard, Favreau re-hired him when he graduated less than a year later, coincidentally the same week that Obama claimed the Democratic nomination. When Keenan returned to the campaign he saw that the stakes had grown much higher; instead of speaking before dozens in small Iowa venues, Obama was appearing at rallies before tens of thousands.

Since that time Keenan has continued to focus on domestic policy for the speechwriting team, which has grown to nine at the White House. He has already lived through more upheaval than he could have ever imagined, including the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession, healthcare reform, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and several other Arab states.

“No one can ever imagine the crises that will happen when you’re working in the White House. But this has been an extraordinary experience—history has been moving so fast,” Keenan observes.

When asked what it is like to write speeches for a president who is also a renowned author, Keenan replies, “It makes it tougher because you always have a higher bar to reach. He does take great care with his edits and he will explain why he changes things. He doesn’t have to do that but we appreciate that he does. What we have is a unique and humbling proximity to the president, and we don’t take that for granted.”

The process of crafting a speech at the White House follows a pattern. Keenan and the team meet with Obama every Monday to plan the week ahead. They each have a couple of days to produce a draft, which then typically goes through multiple revisions and thorough fact-checking with policy experts.

Keenan reads many letters that arrive at the White House and also channels his own personal experiences into his work. “It’s easy to get trapped inside the Washington bubble. But if you forget why you wanted to do this in the first place, then the speech isn’t going to be worth anything … For example, I have an immediate family member who was unemployed during the recession, so I know intimately how that challenges your sense of self-worth. I have friends who have served in Iraq. I have gay friends who are upset that change and equality haven’t come quite fast enough.”

Keenan continues to be inspired by Theodore “Ted” Sorenson, President John F. Kennedy’s legendary speechwriter, with whom he worked at the beginning of Obama’s campaign. “His four rules for speechwriting were, ‘Charity, clarity, levity, and brevity.’ We try but we don’t always nail all four.”

While today’s seven-minute news cycles have transformed the pace of presidential speechwriting since Sorenson’s time, Keenan maintains that the essential value of carefully chosen words endures.

“The bully pulpit may not be as big as it used to be, but we remember that this is the president of the United States and his words have the power to convey emotion and inspire people to work towards a common goal. That’s something that will never change.”