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When Cody Keenan, President Obama’s director of speechwriting, was preparing to start at the White House, he told Jon Favreau, then his boss, that he’d still be around to shut the lights off when the administration left. That promise increasingly looks like a prophecy, as Keenan—who joined the president’s campaign as an intern in 2007—is now staring down the final months of the presidency. For this episode of Working, we spoke to him about his efforts over the years—and got a small glimpse of what might be ahead.
Over the course of his tenure, Keenan and his team have written thousands of speeches, preparing remarks for everything from backyard barbecues to State of the Union addresses. Keenan has been writing in Obama’s voice for long enough that his own sometimes seems to be vanishing into that of his employer. Nevertheless, he still consults with the president on virtually everything that he writes, sometimes talking directly with the man himself and sometimes receiving professorial line edits on drafts of speeches.
Keenan took us through the process of writing and revising a speech, describing some of the tricks he uses to overcome the terror of the blank page. He also gave us a sense of the way his team draws on the work of other departments at the White House, including the correspondence office, but also on the insights of various policy specialists and others outside the complex’s walls. “As a speechwriter, you’re a miniature expert in everything, but a master of nothing,” he explained, meaning that it’s important to incorporate the insights and ideas of others. Fortunately, many are willing to pitch in. “One of the great things about being a speechwriter for President Obama is anyone will answer the phone when we call,” Keenan told us.
Though the administration’s days are dwindling, Keenan says that his team hasn’t “had time yet to feel nostalgic,” partly because events keep intervening. “It actually keeps me from being sad about the end coming,” he told us. “I have no idea what I’m going to do next.”
And in a Slate Plus extra, Keenan tells us about some of the lighter speeches that he’s helped prepare over the years. If you’re a member, enjoy bonus segments and interview transcripts from Working, plus other great podcast exclusives. Start your two-week free trial at slate.com/workingplus.
Podcast production by Mickey Capper.