Yes we can: speeches fit for a president

Behind many of the great orators of US politics – including Barack Obama – are great speechwriters. David Usborne reports
Click to follow
The Independent US

The speech on President Barack Obama's lap as he rides tonight in "the Beast" – his armoured limousine – to a joint session of Congress will not have been dashed off over a day or two. This is the State of the Union address, after all, and one measure of its perceived importance might be the number of weeks spent drafting it.

Months would be more accurate. It was almost immediately after the mid-term elections in early November, which saw control of the House of Representatives swing back to the Republicans, that Mr Obama summoned his minions to begin work on an event so deeply etched on the Washington calendar that it has its own acronym, SOTU.

That he was anxious about it is understandable. About 50 million Americans will tune in this evening to a piece of political theatre that will probably end up looking remarkably familiar, if not actually dull. But to Mr Obama, getting the speech right might have seemed especially crucial this time. If he has pushed the "reset" button with foreign allies, now is the time to do it at home too.

Thank goodness that his young hot-shot speechwriter Jon Favreau was among those summoned back in November to that first brainstorming session about what he should and should not say. It was Mr Favreau who drafted those other speeches that have been so critical to Mr Obama's fortunes in the past, not least when he was campaigning for the presidency in 2008. The race relations speech that was so well received? Mr Favreau wrote it.

The glide path to tonight was interrupted by the attempted assassination of a member of Congress in Tucson, Arizona, which demanded another speech from the president – this one actually drafted over a couple of days. In that speech Mr Obama reached a level of oratory he is most unlikely to exceed tonight.

While John F. Kennedy, whose inauguration was 50 years ago this month, had one universally admired speech writer – Ted Sorenson, who died last year – this president apparently has two. Because Mr Favreau was so involved in crafting the State of the Union speech, the task of providing the president with words for the events in Tucson went to Cody Keenan, a 30-year-old Chicago native who first came to the White House as an intern – for Mr Favreau.

As Mr Obama's approval ratings have tracked upwards in recent days, some say the Tucson speech is the biggest reason. Robert Gibbs, the departing White House spokesman, wanted reporters in Arizona to know that the president had put a lot of himself into it. Even so, stories suddenly abounded about Mr Keenan, his new speechwriting wunderkind.

Before becoming president, Mr Obama established himself as a communicator without peer perhaps since Ronald Reagan. Once he was in the Oval Office that touch seemed largely to desert him. Even his more ardent fans would admit that on occasion he has seemed more tedious than inspiring.

Historically, it has been at moments of national tragedy that presidents have found new and unexpected traction. It happened to Bill Clinton, who, like Mr Obama, suffered a stinging setback in the mid-term elections of his first term but then found new wind with a speech after the devastating Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Mr Reagan was given the same unhappy opportunity in the wake of the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

The other speeches that have echoed through history have been at inaugurations. It was Mr Sorenson who crafted JFK's line, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country".

Any State of the Union address, however, carries a much a higher risk of being a dud. The guiding inspiration tonight will come from Mr Obama himself, whose input will be considerable, and from Mr Favreau. However, it will also be a committee effort. Every branch of government wants at least a sentence in the speech praising their progress. Space must be given to every issue that matters to every constituency that is important to Mr Obama.

Walter Shapiro, a columnist and former speech writer for Jimmy Carter, said: "A single White House speechwriter may have full rein in composing an inaugural address that strives for eloquence, or in crafting a presidential sermonette marking a national tragedy such as the Challenger disaster or the Tucson shootings. But a State of the Union inevitably is a bureaucratic document thematically marred by speechwriting by committee."

Still, some SOTU speeches have single lines that resonate, sometimes around the world, as when George W. Bush voted Iran, North Korea and Iraq as charter members of the "axis of evil".

Mr Favreau and President Obama will hope for a line like that tonight, even if making the whole speech soar as high as Mr Keenan's did in Tucson may prove too hard a challenge.

Mr Obama's writers bloc

Jon Favreau

Thirty this spring, Mr Favreau is speech-writing director for Mr Obama and is said to be the highest paid White House staffer. He first dipped his quill into national politics on the 2004 presidential campaign of John Kerry. Mr Obama hired him after arriving in the Senate in 2005 and dubbed him his "mind-reader". Thanks to his youth, Mr Favreau became an object of media fascination, notably for helping Mr Obama write his speech on race relations in the 2008 campaign.

Cody Keenan

A burly 30-year-old from Chicago, Mr Keenan drew widespread praise for his contributions to the speech delivered two weeks ago by the President in Tucson. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2002, he came to Washington to work in the office of former Senator Ted Kennedy where he remained for nearly four years. Midway through graduate studies at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he returned in 2007 to active politics as intern to Jon Favreau, then speechwriter for the candidate Mr Obama.

The famous... and infamous

John F. Kennedy Inaugural address, 20 Jan, 1961

"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."

Richard Nixon, State of the Union address, 1974

"I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end. One year of Watergate is enough."