Cody Keenan, Obama’s Speechwriter ‘You miss people’s weddings, you miss funerals. I missed my own birthday party in 2013. It’s just the nature of the job’

As heard on The Marian Finucane Show

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It’s been a tumultuous eight months for the United States – and, by extension, the rest of the world. The 45th President, Donald J Trump, has steered the ship of state in a way that has never been seen before and plenty of people are upset about it. In something of a departure for the leader of the free world, Trump seems to favour governing by tweet and his daily social media message is eagerly awaited by fans and foes alike. In a week where racial tensions have been unpleasantly high in the US, following events in Charlotteville, a tweet by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, promoting racial and religious tolerance has become the most-liked tweet of all time.

Crucially, Obama’s hugely-popular tweet came out after he’d left office, presumably because, as Cody Keenan, the 44th President’s chief speechwriter told Marian Finucane, tweeting is “an effective way to create buzz, it’s not an effective way to lead”. In an in-depth and wide-ranging interview, Keenan spoke about writing speeches for whatever occasion the President is expected to attend or make reference to, as well as try to write more than one speech about the same thing in different and interesting ways:

“One of the quirks of American politics is the president of the United States gives three speeches on St Patrick’s Day every year… by the last St Patrick’s Day, there were twenty-four of them… so I was running out of things we hadn’t said before.”

“One of the great things about being a presidential speechwriter,” Keenan told Marian, “is anyone’ll pick up the phone.” And so, when you’re stuck for an idea while writing a key St Patrick’s Day address by the President, you might pick up the phone:

“I called up Colum McCann a few times to try to get some inspiration for a speech to Irish-Americans.”

The job – which Keenan describes as one of the greatest in the world – involves tackling wildly different topics and themes, from the tragic to the sublime, from the brave to the ridiculous. And when you’re writing for a man with the oratorical abilities Barack Obama displayed in his eight years in the White House, your speeches sometimes get raised from the good to the great. This happened on more than one occasion, Keenan said, but one of the most powerful was during a eulogy to the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was killed – along with eight others – by a white supremacist in a Charleston, South Carolina church shooting. The speech concerned itself with the idea of grace and while giving the eulogy, to the delight of the crowd, Obama broke into a verse of Amazing Grace. Keenan said he had been unsure if he would sing it or not, but when he did, it was a startling and wonderful moment.

The two most difficult speeches to write, according to Keenan, couldn’t be more different from each other: the State of the Union and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech. One is full of political and legislative vision and the other is supposed to be funny. And Keenan is not the first person to observe that “comedy is hard”. Marian wondered if the Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011, when Obama mercilessly needled Donald Trump – who was in attendance – might have set Trump on a course to run for President. Keenan didn’t think that was the case:

“I have heard people saying that the whole thing is our fault that he ran for office after that comedy dinner. If that’s the entire reason that he ran for president, then we have much bigger problems.”

You can hear the full discussion with Cody Keenan, including him filling Marian in on who Biggie and Tupac are, and listen back to the rest of The Marian Finucane Show here.



© The Listener 2017

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