Obama's Speechwriter Speaks Up

Jon Favreau has the worst and the best job in political speechwriting. His boss is a best-selling author who doesn't really need his help, having written the 2004 speech that catapulted him onto the national stage. At the same time, the same boss also happens to be capable of delivering a speech in ways that can give his audience the goosebumps.

But Barack Obama is more than a little busy campaigning across Iowa and New Hampshire right now. So it was Favreau who led the team that wrote Obama's victory speech in Des Moines last week—a moment that prompted the TV pundits to drop months of skepticism about Obama's candidacy to make breathless comparisons with the Kennedy era.

For Favreau, a 26-year-old jean-clad staffer (who is no relation to the comedian of "Swingers" fame) who worked in Obama's senate office, the contrast with the 2004 election could not be starker.

Back then Jon Favreau had one of the worst jobs on the Kerry campaign. He was the kid who put together "the audio clips"—the bundle of overnight stories that helped the campaign's senior staff get up to speed on the latest radio news. A graduate of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., he had interned in Kerry's senate office and joined the campaign right out of college.

When Kerry's campaign showed signs of imploding—before recovering again in Iowa—Favreau was one of the few people left in the office when they needed a new speechwriter. "They couldn't afford to hire one," he recalled. "And they couldn't find anyone who wanted to come in when we were about to lose to Dean. So I became deputy speechwriter, even though I had no previous experience."

When Kerry lost in 2004, Favreau thought he was finished with politics. "After the Kerry campaign, after all the backbiting and nastiness, my idealism and enthusiasm for politics was crushed," he said. "I was grateful for the experience I got, but it was such a difficult
experience, along with losing, that I was done. It took Barack to rekindle that."

Obama's communications director, Robert Gibbs, called Favreau after Kerry's defeat and asked him to talk to the newly installed senator. "We're looking for a speechwriter," Gibbs told Favreau.

"Why?" asked Favreau.

"If there were 48 hours in a day, we wouldn't need a speechwriter," Gibbs said. "But he needs to work with someone."

Favreau met with Obama and Gibbs in the Senate cafeteria in the Dirksen office building on Capitol Hill on the senator's first day in his new job. Obama didn't want to know about Favreau's résumé, but he did want to know about his motivation.

"What got you into politics, what got you interested?" he asked.

Favreau told him about the social service project he started in Worcester, defending the legal rights of welfare recipients as the state tried to move people off the rolls and into work.

"What is your theory of speechwriting?" Obama asked.

"I have no theory," admitted Favreau. "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. People applauded not because you wrote an applause line but because you touched something in the party and the country that people had not touched before. Democrats haven't had that in a long time."

The pitch worked. Favreau and Obama rapidly found a relatively direct way to work with each other. "What I do is to sit with him for half an hour," Favreau explains. "He talks and I type everything he says. I reshape it, I write. He writes, he reshapes it. That's how we get a
finished product.

"It's a great way to write speeches. A lot of times, you write something, you hand it in, it gets hacked by advisers, it gets to the candidate and then it gets sent back to you. This is a much more intimate way to work."

Some speeches are much more the product of the candidate himself. Obama e-mailed Favreau his draft of his announcement speech in Springfield, Ill., at 4 a.m. on the morning of the campaign launch last February.

Now Favreau has his own team: Adam Frankel, a 26-year-old who worked with Ted Sorensen on his memoirs, and Ben Rhodes, a 30-year-old who worked with Lee Hamilton on the 9/11 commission's report.

Together they had just three weeks to work on Obama's game-changing speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa and even less time to work on Obama's victory speech last week. Weaving together lines from previous speeches—and even Obama's books—the team now knows the themes and language that reflect the candidate's voice.

"Even if we had finished third, we would go on to New Hampshire," says Favreau of the victory speech plan. "I had a winning and a keep-fighting speech, but in the end they weren't that different. The message out of Iowa was one of unity and reaching out across party lines. We knew we were going to do well with independents, young people and first-time voters. We knew the message was similar to what he said at the 2004 convention."

The result was a speech with a light touch on the most striking point about Obama's victory: the historic nature of a black candidate's win in the almost entirely white state of Iowa. "The first line was simply, 'They said this day would never come'," says Favreau. "Even when we do speeches to African-American crowds, it's hinted at and it's understood. It's not hammered over the head."

So how hard is it to write for someone who has written his own books and speeches to critical acclaim? "People say that, but it's actually a dream come true," says Favreau. "You always hope that the person can match the lofty moment that the writer dreams up. To have someone who can do that makes it a joy to work with him."

Sensing the hype, Favreau catches himself quickly. "I looked at the Edwards people in 2004 and thought they were such Kool-Aid drinkers. Now I'm one of them myself."