Departing Obama Speechwriter: 'I Leave This Job Actually More Hopeful'
Behind most politicians is a speechwriter, typing rapidly somewhere in a small office and trying to channel the boss's voice.
The man who has held perhaps the most prominent speechwriting job of the new millennium is Jon Favreau, a 31-year-old from Massachusetts who was President Obama's chief speechwriter until this month. He started writing for Obama when the president was just a senator in 2005.
He tells Audie Cornish, host of All Things Considered, that writing for the president means walking a line between two worlds.
"You're trying to balance what the president would want to say with what people are looking to hear," he says. "But you need to strike the right balance, because if it's all what people want to hear, that's not true to who he is."
Favreau says his next stop after the White House is starting a communications consulting firm; he plans to write a screenplay based on his experiences.
"We'll see how long it takes for me to find my own voice again," he says.
On the writing process
"My challenge is to make sure that whatever he's thinking, whatever thoughts he has, we can get them down on paper, and we can shape the words to basically what he really wants to say. So our process is, I will sit down with him, we'll talk for 20 or 30 minutes, and he'll have lots of thoughts on the specific speech that he's going to give. And then I will go back, and I'll work with my team, and we will put together a draft that reflects the conversation that the president and I had.
"And then we'll start going back and forth. Sometimes he will just make line edits himself and send the draft back. Or sometimes he will want to take the speech in an entirely different direction, and he will write six or seven pages of scrawled handwriting on a yellow legal pad, and we'll go back at it that way."
On the editing process
"There have been times where I'll have a phrase in there and he'll take it out — and then I'll explain to him, 'Well, I put it in here because if we do it this way, maybe it'll be a sound bite or maybe we'll get a quote that way or, rhythmic-wise, it'll be better.' And ... once in a while he'll say, 'Oh, I think you're right, let's do it this way.' And sometimes he'll say, 'No, I think the way I had it was better.' And that's just how we work. We have a very honest relationship."
On collaborating on Obama's famous race speech
"When I talk about the speech, I always say, you know, the stuff in the speech that you could hear almost any other politician say is mostly the stuff that I contributed. ... Before he gave it, he called me after a long day of campaigning, and he spoke for an hour about what he wanted in that speech. He told me it was going to be random thoughts off the top of his head, and they were not random at all. He had the entire logical argument all ready. ... He laid out the whole thing."
On his departing thoughts
"I leave this job actually more hopeful than when I first got there, and that is because I think that the president went into this more realistically than many people thought that he did. I've been working on these speeches since 2005, and so I know that almost every speech, he makes sure we have the caveat that, 'This is going to be hard.' ... He's not mistaken about how difficult some of this stuff is."
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. Behind most politicians is a speechwriter, typing rapidly somewhere in a small office, trying to channel the boss's voice. In a moment, we're going to talk with the man who's held perhaps the most prominent speech writing job of the new millennium, writing speeches like this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We the people declare today that the most evident of truths, that all of us are created equal is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forbearers through Seneca Falls, and Selma and Stonewall, just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone.
CORNISH: Those words delivered by President Obama, but written in part by a 31-year-old guy from Massachusetts, John Favreau. He's been writing speeches for Obama since the President was just a senator. Now, Favreau has finally left the White House. He's moving on and he's here in the studio with us. John Favreau, welcome.
JOHN FAVREAU: Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: So you've often described your role as akin to being Ted Williams' hitting coach, which is a fitting quote for someone from Massachusetts. Obviously, President Obama knows how to turn a phrase and is a great writer, so what exactly is your challenge?
FAVREAU: My challenge is to make sure that whatever thoughts he has we can get them down on paper and we can shape the words to basically what he really wants to say. So our process is I will sit down with him, we'll talk for 20 or 30 minutes, and he'll have lots of thoughts on the specific speech that he's going to give. And then I will go back and I'll work with my team and we will put together a draft that reflects the conversation that the President and I had.
And then we'll start going back and forth. Sometimes he will just make line edits himself and send the draft back or sometimes he will want to take the speech in an entirely different direction and he will write six or seven pages of scrawled handwriting on yellow legal pad and we will go back at it that way.
CORNISH: Now, you're smirking a little as you say that about him maybe making his own notes, so that makes me wonder. I mean, can you tell us a story of a moment when maybe you had a different idea about how you wanted something phrased and you won.
FAVREAU: Oh, that's an interesting question. You know, he's very - the president is very open to, you know, if you have a different idea he will listen to it.
CORNISH: You're still smirking here, though, so it makes me wonder. He's open to it.
FAVREAU: No, he's very open. I mean, for someone who knows exactly what he's going to say and has such deep feelings for what he believes, you know, there have been times where I'll just, you know, I'll have a phrase in there and he'll take it out. And then I'll explain to him well I put it in here because if we do it this way maybe it'll be a soundbite or maybe we'll get a quote that way or rhythmic wise it'll be better for this.
You know, once in a while he'll say, oh, I think you're right; let's do it that way. And sometimes he'll say, no, I think the way I had it was better, and that's just how we work. We have a very honest relationship.
CORNISH: One of the President's most significant speeches as a candidate in 2008, and this was the speech he gave in Philadelphia in response to the Jeremiah Wright controversy. And it's one of his most praised speeches, and also one of his most personal. Here he is talking about his relationship with Reverend Wright.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)
OBAMA: I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother, a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who, on more than one occasion, has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
These people are part of me and they are part of America, this country that I love.
CORNISH: Writing in anyone else's voice is difficult, but here you are writing in the voice of an African-American man, the first African-American president. What were you thinking there and did you ever feel pressure about that in this speech or others?
FAVREAU: It's funny that you played that section because when I talk about the speech, I always say, you know, the stuff in the speech that you could hear almost any other politician say is mostly the stuff that I contributed. That section is an example of a section that I could never have written myself and before he gave it he called me after a long day of campaigning and he spoke for an hour about what he wanted in that speech.
He told me it was going to be random thoughts of the top of his head and they were not random at all. It was - he had the entire logical argument just all ready to the, you know, you're like 1, 1A, 1B. I mean, he laid out the whole thing.
CORNISH: Do you almost put yourself - in that situation, put yourself in the seat of the audience? Instead of thinking as a president do you say, I'm a young white guy, speak to me, you know, instead of trying to speak from his point of view.
FAVREAU: Yeah, that's a good - I mean, my job is to do both, right. And you're trying to balance what the president would want to say, with what people are looking to hear, but you need to strike the right balance because if it's all what people want to hear that's not true to who he is.
CORNISH: So moving through time, we're in 2009; you've just come off of this very exciting campaign and now you're about to work at the White House. And your first job is to write an inaugural address, and we're going to listen to an excerpt of that speech.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)
OBAMA: Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the fainthearted, for those that prefer leisure over work or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk takers, the doers, the makers of things.
CORNISH: Now, that speech kind of got panned a little bit. I mean, how did that feel?
FAVREAU: Oh, it's always frustrating, right. You like to just brush it off, but I don't. I read every single review and take them seriously. The president...
CORNISH: I love that you call them reviews. We're around here calling them analysis but for you it's a review.
FAVREAU: The reviews. And the president's always much better at kind of brushing it off than I am. And he still maintains, as do I, that he thinks that was a good speech.
CORNISH: So as we're organizing this interview, you mentioned to us in an email that one of the first speeches that you prepared for Senator Obama was for the celebration for John Lewis' birthday and - that's the congressman and civil rights icon. And the very last speech was about the effects that the sequester would have on a navy shipyard. And you said (unintelligible) one of your colleagues had joked that your book title should be called, "From Selma to Sequester: How Governing Kills Hope."
You know, funny, but seems like - what's the political lesson that you've learned over this tenure?
FAVREAU: You know, we had a pretty good laugh at that. But I leave this job actually more hopeful than when I first go there. And that is because I think when the president went into this more realistically than many people thought that he did, because I've been working on these speeches since 2005 and so I know that in almost every speech he makes sure that we have the caveat: This is going to be hard.
One of our jokes in the White House is hard things are hard. And so he has no - he's not mistaken about how difficult some of this stuff is, but he looks back now at four years and, you know, save the economy from a great depression; Bin Laden was killed; passed health care, millions of kids...
CORNISH: I feel like you're writing the speech right now saying it to me. I think I'm getting it all.
FAVREAU: I can't get out of my head.
CORNISH: Are you going to be able, when you leave this job, are you still going to be talking like this?
FAVREAU: Yeah, maybe. I don't know. We'll see how long it takes for me to find my own voice again.
CORNISH: Well, John Favreau, thank you so much for speaking with us.
FAVREAU: Thank you for having me. This was great.
CORNISH: John Favreau was, until last week, chief speechwriter for President Obama. He's not starting a communications consulting firm and he plans to write a screenplay based on his experiences.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLOCK: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.