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Jon Favreau: From White House to silver screen

The man behind many of Barack Obama's greatest speeches is leaving to pursue a new life as a screenwriter. The President's loss is Hollywood's gain

Barack Obama is losing his voice. Jon Favreau, the young speechwriter who helped to craft many of the President’s most memorable addresses, is departing the White House on 1 March to try his hand at screenwriting. In a statement, the President said that the 31-year-old, whom he once described as his “mind reader”, had become “a friend and a collaborator on virtually every major speech I’ve given in the Senate, on the campaign trail and in the White House.”

Favreau is not simply known for his fine prose. He may have been named one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” by Time, and one of the “50 Most Powerful in DC” by GQ, but he was also ranked among the world’s most beautiful by People magazine. During his four years in Washington he has been photographed not only working hard with Obama in the Oval Office, but also playing beer-pong shirtless in a Georgetown bar, and dating actress Rashida Jones, star of The Social Network.

Favreau first met Mr Obama in 2004, when he was working as a junior speechwriter for John Kerry, then the Democrat presidential nominee and Senator for Massachusetts, Favreau’s home state. Obama, running for the US Senate, had been invited to address the Democratic National Convention; Favreau was dispatched by the Kerry campaign to ensure there were no overlaps between the candidates’ speeches. As Obama rehearsed the remarks that would bring him to the world’s attention, he was interrupted by Favreau, then 23, who suggested a few improvements.

Following Kerry’s defeat, Favreau has said his “idealism and enthusiasm for politics was crushed… It took Barack to rekindle that”. In 2005 he was offered a role in Obama’s brain-trust; during his job interview with the then-Senator, Obama asked Favreau for his theory of speechwriting. “I have no theory,” Favreau reportedly replied. “But when I saw you at the convention, you basically told a story about your life from beginning to end, and it was a story that fit with the larger American narrative…  You touched something in the party and the country that people had not touched before.”

Favreau supposedly learned his boss’s celebrated 2004 address off by heart, read and re-read his memoir Dreams From My Father, and studied his speech patterns intensively in his bid to mimic Obama’s  voice. He became a crucial member of the campaign team as Obama ran for the presidency in 2008, and reportedly wrote stump speeches late into the night, kept awake by coffee, Red Bull and rounds of the video game Rock Band. It was Favreau who worked with the candidate to craft his famous victory address following the Iowa primary in January 2008, which began “They said this day would never come…”, and went on to propel Obama towards the White House.

Though he was appointed the President’s Director of Speechwriting in the new administration, Favreau – known to his friends as “Favs” – retained some of the traits of his age group. Between the November 2008 election and the inauguration in January 2009, he was photographed at a party, groping a cardboard cut-out of the newly appointed Secretary of State – and Obama’s one-time bitter electoral rival – Hillary Clinton. The image made its way to Facebook, and from there to the news pages. Clinton took it in good humour. “Senator Clinton is pleased to learn of Jon’s obvious interest in the State Department, and is currently reviewing his application,” her aide Philippe Reines told The Washington Post.

If Favreau needed to demonstrate his maturity anew, he did so with the President’s first inaugural address, the first draft of which he composed in a Washington DC Starbucks, following weeks of research and interviews with historians and other speechwriters. Favreau has identified the speeches of Robert Kennedy and Ronald Reagan among his influences, though he also admires the writing of Michael Gerson, who spent five years as President George W Bush’s speechwriter, and wrote Bush’s address to the joint session of Congress following the 9/11 attacks.

Favreau wouldn’t be the first to make the move from Washington to Hollywood. NBC recently premiered a new sitcom about the White House, 1600 Penn, co-written by 30-year-old Jon Lovett, who spent three years in the Obama administration where he wrote anything from speeches about the financial crisis to jokes for the President’s address at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Beau Willimon, writer of a new US remake of the TV political drama House of Cards, was once a campaign aide to Mrs Clinton.

Phil Rosenthal, the sitcom writer and creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, has written for Presidents Clinton and Obama. He told The Independent he believed Favreau would make a “terrific” screenwriter, especially if he decides to draw on his White House experience. “He has the powerful and unique experience of being in the inner circle of the President of the United States. He may be a fantastic science-fiction writer, but I’m particularly excited to see anything he writes about politics, because he has the inside track.”

Obama’s senior adviser David Plouffe told the Los Angeles Times he thought Favreau could translate many of the skills of writing for the President to writing for the screen. “He can write comedy, history, drama, suspense,” he said. “He’s got the whole range.” But as someone accustomed to penning lengthy monologues for a single character, Favreau has so far had the luxury of  writing exclusively for an exceptional performer. “President Obama is very good at delivering a punch-line,” Rosenthal said, “which is a rare and wonderful talent in a politician.”

Favreau’s replacement will be 32-year-old Cody Keenan, a long-standing member of the White House speechwriting line-up who collaborated with the President on his powerful words at the memorial service following the Tucson shootings in 2011. Like Obama, Keenan calls Chicago his home town. He worked for Senator Ted Kennedy for three and a half years before joining Favreau’s team, and helped the President to compose his eulogy for Kennedy, who died in 2009. He is presently the lead writer on next week’s State of the Union address.

Favreau has said he plans to remain in Washington DC for the time being, but he is believed to be considering a move to LA to pursue a film career. Given his People-endorsed good looks and fondness for Aviator sunglasses, he may even be able to find work in front of the camera. The movie business does, however, have one Jon Favreau already: the writer and star of Swingers, who also directed Iron Man. To avoid confusion in Hollywood, the younger Jon may have to revert to “Jonathan” – or just plain “Favs”.

Favreau’s speeches: Highs and lows

2008 Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech reacted to controversial remarks on race made by his former pastor: “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static;  as if no progress has been made; as if this country… is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past…. But  what we know... is that America  can change. That is true genius  of this nation.”

Reaction “... what made that speech special, what enabled it to save his candidacy, was its analytic power.... In its combination of objectivity and empathy, it persuaded Americans of all colours that he understood them.” Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker.

2009 First inaugural address: “America, in the face of our common dangers,… in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words; with hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come; let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested… we refused to let this journey end...”

Reaction “There really aren’t very many lines in [his] first inaugural address that stood out even in the moment... It didn’t have… a clear theme.” Jeff Shesol, speechwriter for President Bill Clinton.

2012 Democratic National Convention, accepting his party’s nomination for the presidency: “The path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place. And I’m asking you to choose that future.”

Reaction “It was a strong, sophisticated, and policy-laden speech by an embattled president, not a passionate newcomer making blue-sky promises… It was not Obama’s greatest speech... It was, instead,  a grown-up speech...” Howard Kurtz, The Daily Beast.