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Obama's speechwriter: from intern to top wordsmith

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 25, 2013 at 1:18 pm •  Published: May 25, 2013
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WASHINGTON (AP) — When President Barack Obama decided to attend a memorial service in Arizona for victims of a deadly mass shooting that severely injured then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, he needed a speech. And fast.

The service was in two days.

Jon Favreau, then chief White House speechwriter, was deep into writing Obama's 2011 State of the Union address, due in less than three weeks.

Up stepped his deputy, Cody Keenan. "I'll do whatever you need. Put me to work," Favreau recalled him saying.

Keenan met with the president to get some ideas, then started in. He stayed with it right through Obama's flight to Arizona, tweaking the speech even after landing.

The result was one of Obama's most well-received speeches, 34 minutes of impassioned prose in which he appealed for people to "talk with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds."

The speech got Keenan some notice, too. On the return flight to Washington that night, he was publicly identified as the writer — not routine practice for the White House.

"It's C-O-D-Y K-E-E-N-A-N," then-press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters.

Two years later, when Obama needed a new head speechwriter, he turned to Keenan, a 32-year-old fellow Chicagoan.

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Favreau, who left in March after five years as the president's lead wordsmith and his campaign speechwriter before that, first brought Keenan into Obama's orbit as an unpaid summer intern on the presidential campaign in 2007.

Keenan was pursuing a master's degree in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and was intent on returning to work in the Washington office of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy when a colleague from the Massachusetts Democrat's office steered him to Favreau.

"Cody's quiet at first, very unassuming, but he was so happy to be there and was such a hard worker, and I instantly recognized that he also had this amazing writing talent," Favreau said in an interview.

At summer's end, Keenan considered quitting school to stay on with the campaign but ultimately decided to complete his studies. He kept in touch with Favreau and even flew to Iowa during Christmas break to help with the leadoff presidential caucuses. Not long after earning his degree in the spring of 2008, he was hired by Favreau as a junior speechwriter.

"Ever since then, he's just been an integral part of the team," Favreau said.

Current and former White House colleagues, all Obama campaign veterans, praise Keenan's writing skills and work ethic and what they describe as his sense of fairness, modesty and willingness to help.

His speechwriting, they said, is guided by the emotion of the audience he's trying to reach. And, most important for any speechwriter, they said, Keenan knows his subject well.

"Cody's just like this toiling workhorse," said Alyssa Mastromonaco, a deputy White House chief of staff who worked with Keenan on Obama's campaign. "There's nobody who has a better attitude or that you want to be around more than Cody."

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