President John F. Kennedy once remarked at a White House dinner for Nobel Prize winners, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House—with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” It took a lot of chutzpah to pull off that joke. Five decades later, another supremely confident politician, Barack Obama, quipped, “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters.” While not disputing his boss, in his new memoir, former Obama chief speechwriter Cody Keenan describes the daunting task of putting words in the mouth of the man some called “the smartest person in the room”: America’s first Black president.
With an equal measure of wit, humility, and heart, Keenan takes us on a private tour of presidential speechmaking during 10 legacy-defining days of the Obama administration—from the successful fight to save Obamacare to the victory for marriage equality to a soul-stirring eulogy following the murder of nine Black parishioners at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Along the way, Keenan paints a picture of an exceptionally collegial, scandal-free, and committed White House staff stocked with people he would come to view as one of the most extraordinary collections of talent, human knowledge, and humanity ever assembled at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Though Keenan’s story is not solely about race, he is fully aware of the ironic challenge of capturing the voice of the first leader of the free world who dared to drop the mic and break the centuries-old Oval Office color barrier. How could a 35-year-old white kid from the North Side of Chicago possibly be equipped to write speeches for the first Black president—a man who spoke the language of both the South and North Sides of the Windy City and who found his muse in the music of Miles, Coltrane, and Ray Charles?
Keenan tells us his parents met at a New York City advertising agency. His dad was “a surfer jock” from Southern California, his mom “a farm girl from central Indiana.” He describes them both as having “good Midwestern sensibilities.” Keenan candidly admits that, unlike Obama, “I did not inhabit two worlds; I inhabited one … Everything I knew of other people’s hardships came from books I checked out of the library.” This is not altogether true. For his first three years after college, as a staffer in the office of Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, Keenan, as he puts it, “got to bask in the inspiration of that very Kennedy-esque idea that America is not the project of any one person; that anybody can make a difference, and everybody should try to.” Keenan’s evolving social conscience was reenergized by the echo of the Kennedy vision, “updated … for a new time,” when he heard Obama’s call for a truly United States of America at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
In 2007, when Senator Obama announced his candidacy for president, Keenan joined the campaign speechwriting team, and when Obama defeated John McCain in 2008, Keenan became part of the White House speechwriting staff, headed by Jon Favreau. After proving himself as the “workhorse of the team” and earning high praise for his speechwriting skills, Keenan was promoted to chief speechwriter when Favs left in 2013.
Grace is framed around a thicket of pressing and competing speechwriting deadlines facing Keenan and his team during 10 hectic days in June 2015. It was referred to as “SCOTUS week”—the week the Supreme Court was expected to issue rulings on a slew of cases before its summer recess. The outcome of several of those cases would either codify or obliterate two of Obama’s top policy goals. King v. Burwell would determine if Obamacare, which had become a lifeline to health insurance coverage for millions of poor and middle-class Americans since its passage in 2010, would survive. Obergefell v. Hodgeswould decide if LGBTQ Americans had finally won their decades-long struggle for an equal right to marriage.
Presidential draft statements in the event of both victories and defeats of those cases had to be prepared enough in advance to give Obama a chance to shape them to his liking. As if that weren’t enough pressure, on June 17, the Wednesday of SCOTUS week, the White House and the nation were stunned by the news of a mass shooting in a Black church in Charleston that took the lives of nine of its members, including its pastor, Clementa Pinckney. After much discussion, the president decided to deliver Pinckney’s eulogy, on Friday, June 26—one day after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Obamacare and the same day the Court issued its monumental decision in favor of same-sex marriage.
At the start of that week, Keenan and his team were faced with a complicated maze of questions. Could the speechwriters meet these impossible, simultaneous deadlines? Would the Court rule in favor of the hopes of the president and millions of Americans? And would Obama follow through on his inclination to sing “Amazing Grace” during the eulogy for Pinckney? Keenan also wondered if he could meet the expectations of the Charleston eulogy, given his scant understanding of the Black church and the yawning gap between his and the president’s backgrounds. He recalled an earlier meeting with Obama in which the president asked him, “You know what they say about Miles Davis?” Keenan did not. Obama said,
It’s the notes you don’t play. It’s the silences. That’s what made him so good. I need a speech with some pauses, and some quiet moments … Because they say something too. I want you to go home, pour yourself a drink, and listen to some Miles Davis … and find me some silences.
That was a great teaching moment that set the stage for a highly praised Charleston eulogy resulting from one of Keenan’s most intense collaborations with Obama.
While Keenan’s memoir sheds voluminous light on the drama and tension surrounding those 10 tumultuous days in June 2015, it also reminds me of the principled leadership and close foxhole friendships forged during my time as Bill Clinton’s chief speechwriter. Every White House speechwriting team has a unique cadence and personality. But Keenan’s description of the early-morning senior staff meetings in the chief of staff’s office, late nights sequestered in the West Wing “Speechcave,” high-stakes Oval Office meetings with the president, and working trips aboard Air Force One all have the unmistakable ring of authenticity.
Grace is a refreshing departure from the flood of scandalous “literary” flotsam that typically washes up in the wake of the transfer of power. This book might not make breaking-news headlines, but it just might restore a little faith in the presidency and the backstage men and women who work around the clock to fulfill the chief executive’s promises to the American people. Cody Keenan’s memoir is essentially a love story. The love of a president for his country, his family, and his staff through some of the toughest political and personal fights imaginable. The love Keenan and his White House compatriots had for serving in the Obama White House and playing a vital role in helping the president bend the arc of history a little farther toward justice. And, finally, Keenan’s love for a former White House researcher, now his wife, Kristen Bartoloni. Like the president he served, Keenan tells his story with conviction, compassion—and amazing grace.