What did you think of Obama’s State of the Union speech? Boring, too much of a laundry list; nary a memorable phrase or line. That’s what I’ve been hearing—and probably what Cody Keenan, 32, the President’s new chief speechwriter who wrote last Tuesday’s SOTU (his first), has likely been hearing—and reading.
Keenan, who has roots in Chicago’s Lakeview, then in Evanston for elementary school, Wilmette for junior high, and Northwestern for college (class of ’02), has his work cut out for him.
More than most recent presidents, Barack Obama makes a point of presenting himself as a writer—Dreams From My Father gives him the right to do so—and so standards and expectations run sky-high. Obama’s aides push hard at the notion that their boss is the master of his own words. “[Obama’s] a writer himself,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said of this year’s SOTU, “so he engages at a very deep level on the…. writing of [a speech] and the editing of it.” The political lore has the President working into the early morning hours, emailing edit-laden drafts back to the speechwriter; then continuing to work with the speechwriter on Air Force One en route to the speech, on the ground before exiting the plane, and in holding rooms before taking the podium; taking drafts from his speechwriter but changing, refining, improving them until they become his own.
And then there’s the issue of who gets credit. Well, less so with Obama—a president who considers himself a writer would want to claim as his own the words he reads off a teleprompter. And not just any writer. Obama sees himself, many have observed, as a latter-day Lincoln. He wants his words to matter, like Lincoln’s matter, a hundred years from now and beyond.
Keenan won stellar reviews for crafting Obama’s eulogy at Ted Kennedy’s funeral in 2009—Keenan had worked for Kennedy, starting in 2003 as an unpaid worker in the mailroom and moving up a couple of times until he was Kennedy’s legislative aide—and in Tucson at the memorial for the six murdered and the 13 others, including Gabby Giffords, wounded by a gunman outside a grocery store in 2011. (Keenan also worked on the speech Obama delivered last December in Newtown, Connecticut.)
In news coverage, Keenan was credited and admired for these speeches, but White House aides and Keenan himself maintained that these were Obama’s—in his voice, from his heart.
Keenan told Lisa Stein, writing for Northwestern’s Crosscurrents, that he subscribes to a prescription issued during the FDR administration: “[Presidential aides] should be possessed of high competence… and a passion for anonymity.” About the Tucson speech, he applauded the President: “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….”
In moving up from deputy director of speechwriting to director, Keenan takes the place of Jon Favreau, a young (31), cool guy—he made People magazine’s annual list of the most beautiful people—who announced recently that he’s leaving on March 1, likely heading to Hollywood to try his hand at screenwriting. (Favreau came to Obama’s attention while working for presidential nominee John Kerry. Just 23, he was given the tough task of asking Obama, preparing for the 2004 DNC speech that would make the young senate candidate a celebrity, to cut lines that too closely mirrored Kerry’s acceptance speech.)
“West Wing Week,” a White House video, includes a segment on Keenan and the SOTU in which Keenan mentions the “huge” policy binders, which he and others have been studying since November, just after the President’s reelection, in preparation for writing the policy wish-list SOTU speech. (Keenan appears at 2:59.)
Keenan will have to learn to make policy-packed speeches sing; he’ll have to get as good on the governing beat as on the funeral/national tragedy beat; he’ll have to learn to write speeches that will make Obama look as good as commander in chief as consoler in chief.
So who is this guy who pulls all-nighters in the White House basement, sometimes sleeping there, sweating the equivalent of a grade from the President and the American public, feeling, as he has said, like a perpetual grad student?
- He left the Chicago suburbs as a young teen, when his family moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut. (He remains a Cubs and Bears fan.)
- He played quarterback on the Ridgefield High’s football team, graduating in 1998.
- At Northwestern, he majored in political science and joined Sigma Chi.
- He interned as a speechwriter in the Obama primary campaign in the summer of 2007, working for Favreau; returned as full-time speechwriter during the 2008 general election campaign.
- He earned a master’s in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard in 2008.
- While Favreau was famous for a post-election 2008 stunt in which he was photographed with his hand on the chest of a Hillary Clinton cardboard cutout, Keenan’s most arresting visual shows him dressed as a pirate, complete with a hook—Somali pirates were much in the news at the time—seated beside Obama, looking as if engaged in a bilateral White House discussion between the U.S. President and a foreign Prime Minister. It drew laughs at the 2009 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, for which Keenan helped write the President’s script: “We can’t just talk to our friends…..we’ve got to talk to our enemies too and I’ve begun to do exactly that,” Obama deadpanned.
- Asked what he liked most about his White House job, Keenan once told a group of students from Ireland interning in D.C., “Air Force One is pretty sweet!”
Keenan’s lament that writing for President Obama always ends in a grade gets magnified a hundred-fold when writing major public speeches such as the SOTU. “President Obama’s Tuesday State of the Union address had the fewest viewers [33.5 million] of any since 2000 [Clinton’s last SOTU] and failed to boost his approval rating,” wrote Jonathan Easley in The Hill. But one can hardly hang the ratings around Keenan’s neck; not only have they been steadily on the wane across presidents, but only those closest to him would have watched because they knew he wrote it. And that stagnant approval rating must hurt—even though, as Easley notes, SOTU’s rarely affect a president’s popularity.