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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Obama's Speech Writer is "Fav"

Obama sometimes jokes that Favreau is not so much a speechwriter as a mind reader. He carries Obama's 1995 autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," with him almost everywhere and has memorized most of his famous keynote speech from the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He has mastered Obama's writing style -- short, elegant sentences -- and internalized his boss's tendency toward reflection and ideological balance.

Favreau's job is "to be like a baseball umpire," one co-worker said, and perform his task so deftly that nobody notices him. He listens to Obama tell stories in his office and spins them into developed metaphors, rich in historical context. When Obama delivers a speech on the road, Favreau studies the recording and notes the points at which Obama departs from the text so he can refine the riffs and incorporate them next time.

In four years together, Obama and Favreau have perfected their writing process. Before most speeches, Obama meets with Favreau for an hour to explain what he wants to say. Favreau types notes on his laptop and takes a crack at the first draft. Obama edits and rewrites portions himself -- he is the better writer, Favreau insists -- and they usually work through final revisions together. If Favreau looks stressed, Obama sometimes reassures him: "Don't worry. I'm a writer, too, and I know that sometimes the muse hits you and sometimes it doesn't. We'll figure it out together."

"The president-elect understands that Jon is a rare talent. He knows what he's got," said Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor, who also worked in the Senate office. "There's a mutual respect and appreciation between them, and the president-elect trusts Jon's instincts and ability. It's a partnership."

They stumbled upon it by accident in 2004, when Obama, just elected to the Senate, needed to hire a speechwriter. He brought Favreau, then 23, into the Senate dining room for an interview on his first day in office. They talked for 30 minutes about harmless topics such as family and baseball before Obama turned serious.

"So," he said. "What's your theory on speechwriting?"

Awkward silence. Favreau, just graduated from Holy Cross, had talked his way onto Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential campaign in 2003 and had become a press assistant, arriving at the office at 3 a.m. to clip newspapers. The speech he had given as class valedictorian circulated around the staff, and Favreau eventually got a shot at speechwriting. He wrote well and rose to the top of the department, but there was never any time to formulate theories. Now, Favreau looked at Obama and went with his gut.

"A speech can broaden the circle of people who care about this stuff," Favreau said. "How do you say to the average person that's been hurting: 'I hear you. I'm there. Even though you've been so disappointed and cynical about politics in the past, and with good reason, we can move in the right direction. Just give me a chance.' "

"I think this is going to work," Obama said.

Read it all here.

That part about the average person hurting... it doesn't fly. Hurting how? Because he didn't get a raise this year? Because her boyfriend left? Because he didn't study and earned an F on the final exam? Because she has breast cancer? Because his buddy was killed in Iraq? Because her church's leadership went nuts and caused the denomination to split? Geez! Life is about suffering. The message we need to hear is not that President Obama can identify with the average American, but toughen up, America! There is more suffering on its way.

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