Thanks, Obama

This memoir by a former White House speechwriter (and joke writer) is irresistibly charming. It also feels like the setup for a grim cosmic punch line.

President Barack Obama speaks at the  White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in Washington on April 30, 2016.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Thanks, Obama is the “hopey, changey” memoir of senior White House speechwriter David Litt, who at 24 was catapulted into the inner sanctum of American democracy to pen jokes for the president and his aides. Not just jokes—Litt also crafted remarks about criminal justice reform, immigration, climate change, Betty White’s 90th birthday, and more. But his coup de grace was masterminding Obama’s stand-up performances at multiple White House Correspondents’ dinners, including the one featuring Keegan-Michael Key as Luther the Anger Translator. Litt writes that his eight years at the White House—he left in January of 2016—impressed him with the importance of values like service, purpose, and respect; taking a front-row seat to the legalization of gay marriage, the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and the oratorical and personal bravery of the nation’s first black president convinced him that the arc of the universe, however long, does bend toward justice.

Well, good thing Litt likes jokes, because from the universe’s perspective Thanks, Obama is the object of a particularly cruel one. His memoir is a heartfelt ode to an America on the wane, a nation we trusted to slide glacially in the right direction, except that all the while, unbeknownst to us, the glacier was melting. (Disclaimer: I went to college with Litt, and we are passing acquaintances, but not close enough that it would affect my experience of the book.) Thanks, Obama is a compendium of patriotic lessons that may or may not endure; it feels like a time capsule or a magical portal to a republic turned to smoke. It can be disorienting, as when the author describes Donald Trump’s comeuppance—and, it was then presumed, political annihilation—at Obama’s hands during the 2011 nerd prom: “As the crowd applauded the president, the humiliated billionaire turned as red and angry as a blister. Well, I remember thinking, that’s the end of Donald Trump.”

Like an editor at the world’s most misanthropic humor magazine, history took Litt’s manuscript and punched it up, ironizing his earnestness and lifting the stakes of his private soul-searching: Can those who love this country really change it? I consumed Thanks, Obama as a eulogy, a call to action, and a fervent rearticulation of first principles. But it’s hard not to also experience it as the setup for a terrible cosmic punch line.

Of course, none of this is the book’s fault! The book itself is immensely appealing. In addition to Litt’s warm and engaging prose, it benefits from the inherent charm of its premise: the little guy brushing shoulders with the unthinkably powerful. Litt paints himself as starry-eyed and semi-hapless, an ingénue who blacks out the first time Obama addresses him and identifies with anonymous storm troopers aboard the Death Star. He is self-deprecating, gracious, and, of course, funny, with a gift for puncturing Oval Office glamor in ways that ultimately reinforce the dignity and decency of his workplace. (Remember when we all laughed about Obama reaching over the sneezeguard at Chipotle? That’s the kind of brutal critique 44 and his staff come in for.)

Certainly, there is a bit of elision here: Litt, a white male Ivy League graduate, is not quite the zero his comedic/fairy-tale setup needs him to be. But you never doubt that he feels like one—nor is it a stretch to imagine that riding in a helicopter alongside the Beretta-toting Counter-Assault Team (“If something bad happens, Secret Service gets the president out of trouble. The CAT team finds the trouble and kills it”) might elicit awe and insecurity. Plus, Litt acknowledges his privilege head-on, expressing pride in the success of his immigrant grandparents while also lightly roasting White House bro culture. (“If chest bumping had been permitted in the Oval, we would have gone for it.”)

You expect a White House speechwriter with a comedy specialty to deliver flowing sentences that also make you laugh. Litt’s wonderful descriptions, heavy on self-consciously goofy analogies, are one of the book’s joys, especially when he’s initiating D.C. outsiders into the institutions and lore of the Beltway. About one campaign tradition, the author writes, “Imagine if, with five minutes left in the Super Bowl, the opposing quarterbacks rushed to the fifty-yard line to sing ‘I Will Always Love You’ in a karaoke duet. Now imagine if, in addition to playing for opposing teams, each quarterback loathed everything the other stood for. Welcome to the Al Smith.” And Thanks, Obama also supplies the dishy anecdotes that are political memoir’s bread and butter: tales told from a reader-surrogate’s perspective about the foibles of the rich, influential, and amply body-guarded. In one scene, Litt recalls getting chewed out by Harvey Weinstein while trying desperately to adapt a Scarlett Johansson speech to the time constraints of the Democratic National Convention. In another, circumstances conspire to force him to inform the president that a photograph makes him look like Hitler. In yet another, he finds a grilled salmon fillet floating in a White House toilet and fears some sort of security breach. The best of these stories double as primers on the curious, whispered rituals of the West Wing, its coded self-assertions and exclusionary argot. We learn that the subject line “My edits” from a senior speechwriter translates to “Unmitigated disaster. Pure garbage. Rewrite.” And that the cool kids call POTUS “P.”

But Thanks, Obama distinguishes itself as a feat of thinking, not just telling. Litt’s years in the White House have given him insight into the political moment: He can explain why the president’s “pathological calmness” might have alienated Americans who “were experiencing less violence than almost any generation in human history,” yet, thanks to social media, “witnessing more violence than ever before.” He beautifully observes that in a polarized country “day-to-day governing was like choosing the right words,” and “elections were like choosing a language.”

And the book can serve as a sneakily illuminating chronicle of workplace dysfunction. When, during a video-taping, the plastic lid on a diva light by Obama’s head begins to smolder, “releasing a curl of toxic smoke just a few inches from the president’s left ear,” Litt remembers how he and the other staffers were too scared to extinguish it. He diagnoses the problem: “What we needed was someone in charge of making sure the president’s head was not incinerated. But no such person existed. … And in Obamaworld, straying outside your lane was a mortal sin.”

The humility and the grind of being a staffer takes its toll on Litt, as does the cognitive dissonance of stoking a population’s hopes while wrestling with your own uncertainty. “I was living not one dream,” he says, “but two. In the first, I flew around on Barack Obama’s private jet while he helped me score brownie points with my girlfriend’s parents. … But the second dream was more fevered, more troubling. I was hovering midair. … The pilots were flying blind.”

At play here is something deeper than self-deprecation. You could argue that Trump has realized the memoir’s central, nagging worry: that Litt got lost in dreamland, hitched too much meaning to a fallible president and a flawed country, and was betrayed. Ultimately, your verdict on the viability of Thanks, Obama as a truthful reflection of what America is—not just what it was, or what we fantasized it was—probably depends on your temperament. In 2017, do you still think people are good? Can those who love a country change it?

In my reading, at least, Litt makes room for pessimism without succumbing to it. The book, with its high-tide-low-tide rhythm of hope and disillusionment, is a bildungsroman mapped onto a political career. It narrates the shading of the author’s “great expectations,” but, as with most coming-of-age tales, what survives the onslaught of maturity has an earned resonance. “POTUS was brilliant,” Litt decides. “He was talented. He was on the right side of history.” He is also “just a guy.” In fact, though, Barack Obama is the guy—the one this memoir devotes its title to thanking, through the repurposing of a sarcastic meme. Litt minted his star converting world affairs into jokes. The translation of satire back to sincerity is trickier to pull off, and lands with its own undeniable grace.

Thanks, Obama, by David Litt. Ecco.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.