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Northwestern University
Cody Keenan '02 and Dean Adrian Randolph in a Convocation processionleft

“This Country Depends on All of Us”

Obama speechwriter Cody Keenan ’02 encourages the Class of 2018 to stay hopeful and engaged, no matter the path they pursue

The message to the brand-new graduates was clear: The time is now. Dive into the world and make a difference, even if that means simply having hope for the future in these chaotic times.

Life, like politics, can be messy, complicated and disappointing, said Cody Keenan ’02 in a rousing speech to nearly 1,000 graduates during Weinberg College’s Convocation ceremony June 23 at Ryan Field.

But that’s no reason to accept the cynicism rampant in our country today, asserted Keenan, who was a speechwriter for President Barack Obama for more than a decade.

“I know that idealism can be hard,” Keenan acknowledged. “To be an idealist; to open yourself up to the possibilities of what we can do together — it’s never an easy thing.”

Excerpts from Keenan's address to the Weinberg College Class of 2018. Watch the full address.

At the same time, Keenan advised graduates that they don’t need to decide on their career path at 22. “I’m here from the future to tell you to chill,” he said. “When I was where you are, I didn’t know what was next, let alone what to do with my life.” 

Keenan himself took a little while to hit his stride after graduation. He started as an unpaid intern in the U.S. Senate mailroom, slowly worked his way up and eventually became an aide to Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

His career came into focus when he heard a young Barack Obama, then a state senator from Illinois, address the Democratic Convention in 2004. “Here was somebody who saw politics the way I wanted to — as an imperfect but noble endeavor where, together, we can do great things that we can’t do alone,” Keenan said.

Although Keenan had no previous experience writing speeches, one day he found himself in the position of having to write one. He liked it, and spent countless hours of hard work and observing veteran speechwriters to hone his craft. Keenan never stopped working, and when Obama’s director of speechwriting stepped down, Keenan was well positioned to succeed him.

What ensued was a journey that Keenan could have never imagined.

"Do your thing, whatever it is"

“I am proud of every one of those 2,922 exhausting, fulfilling days in the White House, because they vindicated that belief I had so many years earlier in what politics could be,” Keenan said.

Keenan encouraged the graduates to stay engaged in their communities, regardless of the paths they choose to pursue.

“The work of America isn’t limited to people who work in politics,” Keenan said.  “Wherever your next step takes you … this country depends on all of us. Reading the news. Knowing the issues. Voting in every election. Being alive to one another's struggles.”

He added: “Hope is subversive right now. Go spread it anyway.”

Keenan left students with some spirited advice: “Do your thing, whatever it is – with humor, and compassion, and empathy, and inspiration, and mischief, and hope.  People will follow you. People will join you. And all of us here who already believe in you are rooting for you more than you know.”

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