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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When Obama decides to give a major speech, the writing process starts weeks, sometimes months, ahead of time with "the download" — the president giving the writer ideas about what he'd like to say.

The White House likes to portray Obama, the author of three best-selling books, as very involved in the writing of his speeches. And on more important speeches, he is. Behind-the-scenes video released by the White House on the drafting of last year's State of the Union address includes close-ups of the text, with Obama's editing changes penned all over it in blue ink.

But any president has to have help.

Keenan, a deputy and about six others, including two who also write for Michelle Obama, produce everything from brief presidential statements on deaths and retirements to remarks congratulating sports teams for winning tournaments, scientists for their inventions and service members for bravery. They also turn out commencement, policy and other speeches.

The White House declined to make Keenan available for an interview. But in a recent Kennedy School interview, Keenan said the 24-hour media environment of cable TV, Twitter, blogs and other competing information sources have made the White House speechwriter's job more challenging.

"With rare exceptions, the bully pulpit doesn't reach as many people as it used to," he said. "Our job is to keep the president's message fresh and arguments compelling even as they've been the same for the past six years."

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Keenan is said to have been deeply influenced by Kennedy, a fellow Irish-American, and by his two years at Harvard's Kennedy School, named for the late senator's assassinated brother, President John F. Kennedy.

He started in Kennedy's office in 2003 as an unpaid intern in the mailroom and soon was hired to answer front-desk phones.

Stephanie Cutter, who worked with Keenan in Kennedy's office, said the senator often asked how many people would be helped by a contemplated action. She said Keenan was inspired by Kennedy's desire to get results for constituents.

Coincidentally, one of the first speeches Keenan wrote for Obama was about a national service bill that Kennedy sponsored and Obama signed into law in April 2009. After learning of Keenan's role, Kennedy later sent him a congratulatory note that hangs framed on a Kennedy tribute wall in Keenan's office, said Ben Rhodes, a Keenan friend and now a deputy national security adviser.

After Kennedy's death that August, Keenan helped write the eulogy Obama delivered at the senator's funeral.

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Online:

2011 Tucson, Ariz., memorial service remarks: http://1.usa.gov/fGjdTA

2012 State of the Union: http://1.usa.gov/zsxJYu



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