What It’s Really Like to Be a Presidential Speechwriter

Obama speechwriter David Litt pens a moving reflection on the mystery, magic, and mundanity of working in the White House.

Political speechwriters accept a basic bargain. You get to be heard: by the powerful people for whom you write, by the crowds who listen to them, by the reporters who cover them. In return, you don’t get to be heard from. Speechwriters toil in anonymity, with bylines and glory denied. Among this small fraternity (and it still is, too often, a fraternity) it’s considered gauche to take or seek credit for a novel argument or memorable line.

But when the principal leaves office, all bets are off. So they were for Sam Rosenman (Franklin Roosevelt) and William Safire (Richard Nixon), for Peggy Noonan (Ronald Reagan), Michael Waldman (Bill Clinton), and Matt Latimer (George W. Bush).

Now to this well-populated genre comes the first entrant from the Obama White House, David Litt’s Thanks Obama: My Hopey Changey White House Years, a funny and unexpectedly moving reflection on Litt’s journey from unpaid organizer in Ohio to speechwriter and in-house humorist for President Obama.

Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years by David Litt HarperCollins, 320 pp.

It should be noted that what it means to be a “speechwriter” has changed a great deal since the days of Ted Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., when speechwriters tended to be policymakers first, poets second; thought partners, rather than ghostwriters (or “scribes,” as my old boss Al Gore once bellowed from his office to summon my colleagues and me). Richard Nixon put an end to that. He created the first White House communications office, modeled on Madison Avenue advertising agencies; moved the whole operation across the street from the West Wing; and made his speechwriters—an impressive bunch that included William Safire and Pat Buchanan—subordinate to the communications director. Most modern speechwriting offices fit the description that the journalist D. T. Max used during the George W. Bush administration: “Policy and prose work their way on separate tracks at the White House, only meeting at higher levels.”

Thus, most of these memoirs embrace the diminishment of the role, creating a recurring series of stories that can be summarized as “Gee whiz, look at little ol’ me here in the White House!” Typically, as that sense of awe diminishes, so do the writer’s enthusiasm and idealism, ultimately concluding somewhere on the spectrum of cynicism. While Litt doesn’t quite break this mold, he modifies it enough to create a narrative that illuminates the challenges and triumphs of those whose roles are tightly circumscribed, whether that’s as a campaign organizer or as a presidential speechwriter. And he provides a rare window onto how a president’s jokes get written and chosen for the increasing number of platforms that demand that, along with everything else, our leaders also be funny.

After Obama’s victory in 2008, Litt’s contributions as a field organizer got him nothing beyond a ticket to the inauguration in a section that was closed down before the president ever took the oath. He watched the moment he had toiled for on TV at a bar. He then took a soul-deadening job in crisis communications, ultimately finding his way to an internship at a writing firm (disclosure: I’m a partner in that firm, and Litt mentions me in the book). From there he took a job as a writer for Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, which ultimately allowed him to make the jump to the president’s team.

Litt, by his own admission and by government designation during the 2013 shutdown, was “nonessential.” (“I would have preferred to be called ‘valued,’” he quips.) This frees him from the responsibility of chronicling the fraught moments at which decisions of import were made, and instead allows him to muse on the contributions of those on the margins of power.

Often, Litt frames that contribution in the negative: Look how screwed up things get if I make a mistake. There was the Thanksgiving video message that failed to mention God, which led to a day of hyperventilation on Fox News. And, in a demonstration that a Kenya fixation didn’t only afflict Republicans, there was the line in the 2013 Gridiron Dinner speech when Litt attempted to pay tribute to intrepid journalists: “They’ve risked everything to bring us stories from places like Syria and Kenya, stories that need to be told.” That led to a small diplomatic kerfuffle, given that Kenya has press freedom enshrined in its constitution.

And then there are the sillier episodes: a failed attempt to try to change outfits in the coat closet of Air Force One, or the discovery of an untouched salmon fillet in a White House toilet that becomes an extended metaphor for the mystery, magic, and ultimate mundanity of a White House job.

Litt expertly captures the series of realizations made by every White House staffer. Whether it’s the simple fact that upon arriving in the White House “unchanged abilities [are] pitted against drastically heightened expectations,” or the need to explain to friends and family that not everybody gets to talk to the president all the time (“Just because Darth Vader is the public face of the organization doesn’t mean that every storm trooper gets one-on-one time”).

He relives the paranoia that’s uncomfortably familiar to the small universe of those who have experienced it. The fear of receiving an email that will send you into a frenzy of rewrites. The fear of not receiving an email. The battle with the White House factcheckers (back when those existed). The knowledge that the boss will inevitably ask the one question to which you do not have the answer.

Litt, who recently told the New York Times that “American history would have been totally the same without me, except for a couple of jokes,” freely admits that he wielded little actual power. Yet he was able to use his role as in-house humor writer to achieve more than laughs. It helped that he served a president who was particularly deft at wielding humor to amplify serious points. Consider how a joke that Litt added to Obama’s 2013 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner exquisitely skewered both Republicans’ lack of diversity and their obstructionism: “One thing Republicans can all agree on after 2012 is that they need to do a better job reaching out to minorities. Call me self-centered, but I can think of one minority they could start with.”

Humor has the ability to resonate in the way that policy proclamations can’t. In one illustrative example, a health care speech Litt wrote for the president received 10,000 views on YouTube, while Obama’s appearance on comedian Zach Galifianakis’s intentionally uncomfortable online talk show Between Two Ferns was viewed by eleven million people the day it was released and increased traffic to Healthcare.gov by 40 percent.

Litt’s humor and self-deprecation serve as spoonfuls of sugar that help a significant dose of analysis go down. He offers some frank diagnoses of the failures of the Obama policymaking apparatus:

On big issues—education, climate change, health care—he borrowed ideas from Republicans. Rather than starting from one extreme and negotiating toward the center, his early proposals often arrived with the compromise baked in. . . . Each time Obama entered new common ground, a kind of white flight occurred.

Ultimately, what differentiates this memoir from so many is that Litt began his political life as an organizer. He refuses to forget the ordinary people in Ohio who joined in the political process because they had a real need, and felt that the act of working to elect Barack Obama would have a meaningful and tangible impact on their lives.

Perhaps the most powerful speech delivered at the 2012 Democratic National Convention was by Stacey Lihn, whose daughter Zoe was born with a congenital heart defect and required three surgeries before the age of five. By six months of age, Zoe was halfway to her lifetime health insurance coverage cap. Mitt Romney had said at his convention speech that the most exciting day for Obama supporters was the day they voted for him, and that it had been downhill from there. At the Democratic convention, Stacey Lihn took the stage, with Zoe in her father’s arms behind her, and declared that the most exciting days for them were the day Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law and the one shortly thereafter when their insurance company told them that Zoe’s lifetime cap had been lifted. Litt worked with Lihn on that speech, and he returns to Zoe’s story, and the stories of the organizers with whom he worked in Ohio, throughout the book.

Litt’s White House journey took him a world away from their lives. But in remembering them throughout his time in the White House, and returning to them in his book, he offers a powerful reminder that true fulfillment can come from wielding even the smallest bit of influence on behalf of those who have none. In this way, Litt refuses to succumb to cynicism—and might just help the rest of us overcome ours.

Jeff Nussbaum

Jeff Nussbaum is a partner in the speechwriting and strategy firm West Wing Writers. He managed the speechwriting operation at the 2012 and 2016 Democratic National Conventions.