Before speaking at Fordham University on Monday night, President Obama’s former director of speechwriting, Jon Favreau, sat down with Ben St. Clair, FPR’s editor-in-chief, to talk about writing, the art of political speeches, and what gives him hope today.
Did you hope to have a career in writing when you were growing up?
I don’t know. I loved writing when I was growing up, so I think I always figured writing would be a big part of my career. From the time I was very young — elementary school — I was writing stories, fictional stories, and then I was part of the school newspaper for as long as I can remember. So I had various ideas of what I might be when I grow up — lawyer, politician, journalist, so all of them sort of required some writing.
Were you hoping to be fiction writer or a newspaper writer?
I hadn’t thought about a fiction writer. At one point, when I was really young, I thought maybe I’d be a fiction writer, and then I think what happened was I became really interested in politics and current events and the issues of the day and getting into debates about that. That’s when I realized that probably I would want to do some kind of writing, some sort of political writing, or at least writing about what was going on in the world.
Did you have any early experiences that pointed you in that direction and showed you that this is what you wanted to do in your career?
In terms of writing, I would say when I was at [The College of the] Holy Cross, I became opinions editor of the school newspaper. I was a junior when 9/11 happened, and I remember when the subsequent political debates became quite intense, particularly around the War in Iraq, and I remember just feeling that I had a lot to say about that, so I would write about that in The Crusader (our newspaper). When I went to D.C. for a semester to do an internship with John Kerry, I ended up sitting next to his press secretary and his communications director, and they gave me a lot of freedom to do a lot of writing there, and I think that’s when I knew that this is probably something I want to do.
And it’s something you really enjoyed.
Yeah, they were wonderful. His communications director and speechwriter, David Wade, one night actually asked me if I wanted to go home and take a cut at an op-ed for Martin Luther King Day that Kerry wanted to place in the Boston Herald, which I couldn’t believe. I did that and stayed up until two in the morning and wrote this op-ed, and then I sent it in and didn’t hear anything from him and thought it must have been pretty bad. Then the next week, I see an op-ed in the Boston Herald, and there’s a couple paragraphs of what I wrote. When I saw that, I thought, “I think I really want to do this.”
Yeah there’s no credit involved, but you know that it’s yours.
It didn’t really matter about the credit. It just sort of mattered that in some way — not just my writing — but in some way I was helping maybe shape opinion, maybe persuade people. That to me was both fun and sort of exhilarating, and it felt like I could possibly make a difference doing that.
Do you have your own unique writing process or creative process?
I wish I did. I wish I had a more structured process — I don’t. I read a lot before I start writing, so I try to consume as much information as possible on the given topic, read what other people have written, try to have discussions with people about it. So I do a lot of reading and research, and then I stare at a blank screen. I’m not an outline person, so I don’t do a lot of outlines. I’m a little bit of a perfectionist. I can’t write the end before I write the beginning. I can’t just write sections and then put them together. I really have to do it from the beginning to the end.
What gives you inspiration when you’re stuck?
Usually reading something — another speech or a piece or an article that’s inspiring that’s around that same topic. With the president it was reading past speeches by [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt or [Martin Luther] King [Jr.], or [President John F.] Kennedy. That would sometimes inspire me. Or in the present, it’s reading stories in local newspapers about someone who’s doing something inspiring and amazing — people living their lives and doing something really, really powerful and exciting.
You’ve mentioned in the past that when President Obama hired you in 2005, he said that he didn’t think he needed a speechwriter but that you “seemed nice enough.” Do you think you changed his mind over the years?
I do. Not because he suddenly doubted his own writing abilities, but because I think he did not realize how busy his schedule would be when he became a U.S. senator, particularly a U.S. senator with a big national profile. When he first got to the Senate, I think he thought to himself, “OK, I wrote the 2004 [Democratic National] Convention speech by myself. That went pretty well. I’m a pretty good writer. I’ve written a couple books now, so I don’t need someone.” It is a tough thing to have someone else try to write your voice, especially when you’re a writer. If someone wanted to write a speech for me, I’d be like “who are you?” Even someone I was close to, I would think it was weird. It’s a very unique and sort of intense relationship between a person who’s giving a speech and their speechwriter, and I think it takes time to develop. Fortunately, we had that time in the Senate because he wasn’t quite as busy when he was running for president, and I sat right outside of his office, so there was a lot of times where if an issue came up, or a big speech was happening, I could sit with him for 20-30 minutes, listen to him talk, ask him questions, and then just sort of type everything that he said.
Do you think that there’s an intrinsic value to having a speechwriter for an elected official? Obviously, there are the time constraints that they are faced with, but is there some sort of objectivity or detached view that a speechwriter can offer?
I don’t think it’s objectivity or detachment as much. I think what it offers you is the opportunity to really put time into thinking about what you’re going to say. Someone said recently about [Sen.] Marco Rubio, actually, that he is the rare politician that thinks about what he says before he says it. I don’t know enough about Rubio to know if that’s true or not, but I do think that’s tough for a lot of politicians to do that because you’re just going — you’re moving. You’ve got a full schedule every day, and if you don’t have a speechwriter, the alternative is not that you’re sitting there writing all your speeches. That just doesn’t happen. It’s either that you’re going out there with nothing prepared and just speaking off the cuff, which — I’ll tell you — most people don’t do that well. Ninety-something percent of people don’t do that well. Some people do, and it’s an amazing skill. People who are really good at it are clergy, people who give homilies and who speak in church, or are reverends. Those people are quite good. Or people who have just been doing it forever — if you’ve been running a company forever — but for most people it’s a tough skill. Therefore, you’re getting a speech written by your communications staff or a policy person, and those people come at it from different perspectives. A communications person is thinking what is going to work with the press; a policy person is thinking, “I gotta get all the details of the policy in there.”
The speechwriter is not just thinking about pretty words. The speechwriter is thinking about how all of this comes together and truly represents what you want to say, what you believe, what your voice is. It’s only valuable if you put in time with your speechwriter. If you have a speechwriter, and the speechwriter just gives you a bunch of speeches and then you just go out and give them, I actually don’t think it works that well. President Obama spent a lot of time with me and a lot of time working on his own speeches. He didn’t have all the time in the world to write his own speeches, but there were nights where he would stay up. He would read his briefing book — all kinds of issues, big decisions — and then at two in the morning, he would sit there and edit a speech or write something out longhand and then give it back to me the next day and say, “OK, incorporate this into a speech” or “figure out if this works or not.” He put a lot of time into it, and I think that putting a lot of forethought into what you’re going to say and how you’re going to communicate to people — there’s a value to that.
What’d you learn about yourself as a writer when you were working with the president?
I think over the years I learned to become a better editor of myself. I think that when you start out speechwriting — or when anyone starts out writing — you hold close a lot of great lines that you’ve written — or lines that you think are great. And it’s hard to get rid of it. You think to yourself, “I can’t cut his line because I worked so hard putting these words together, and it’s going to be this wonderful quotable line.” At the end of the day — and I say this when I speak now — the story is more important than the words. I really do believe that. Learning that the structure of a speech, the story you’re telling, the logic of the speech, the length of the speech, the speech as a whole is more important than any individual sentence or word or quote that you right. I think that takes discipline. I’ve always been creative. I’ve always been interested in writing. I’ve always been interested in trying to persuade people. But learning there’s a discipline to writing is what I think I’ve learned over time but I don’t know that I had when I started.
A discipline in terms of . . .
I’m going to cut this. I’m going to revise this. I’m going to cut this, even if I think what I did is great. I’m not going to have pride of authorship. If I think this is great but 10 other people are telling me it’s not that great, it’s probably not that great. Or, on the other hand, if I think this is really, really good and there’s one person who’s offering me edits that’s saying it’s horrible, I have confidence enough to know that enough people like it, so I’m going to go ahead. It’s sort of getting that sense of self and sort of being self-aware and stepping outside yourself as a writer and learning to not take criticism seriously and not take it personally, and to learn from the people who are around you. Being collaborative as a writer, being open to criticism, I think that is very important and that’s something I’ve learned over time.
Do you think that the overarching theme and the long-term message in the speech is more important than the little tag lines you get in there?
I do. The tag lines are fine, but the tag lines have to come from the speech — not the other way around. I always use the example: “Yes we can” was a great phrase, but “Yes we can” was used in the 2004 Senate race. We hadn’t used it in the Senate office. We hadn’t used it in the first part of the presidential campaign. We used in New Hampshire for the first time when we lost because he told us he wanted to write a speech that was: even if we win New Hampshire, this is going to be a struggle. It’s going to be a struggle to win the primary, struggle to win the election, and a struggle to do the things we want to do when I’m president. And so we need a speech that really tells people, “it’s not just about me. It’s about what everyone can do together. But if we look at history, and if we look at all the difficult challenges that people before us have faced and overcome, we realize that we can overcome them.” Thus, “Yes We Can.” But it wasn’t, “OK let’s but a bunch of slogans on the board and let’s pick one and let’s write a speech from it.” That’s the wrong way to go.
Since leaving the White House and starting to give speeches yourself, how have you gone about developing your voice? Has it been challenge after trying to master someone else’s, really learning a command of their sentences, and their phrases, and their cadence?
Probably the most common edit that the president would give me — that David Axelrod would give me and the rest of the speechwriters — is “try this again and make it a little more conversational, make it a little more simpler words that you would use to speak to someone else. Imagine if the president wasn’t in front of a crowd of 20,000 people, but he’s just trying to talk to someone and communicate a message.” Writers naturally write for what the words on the page look like, but when you’re writing for someone who’s giving a speech, you write for how it’s going to sound.
I took that to heart, and I think that I was pretty good at being conversational writer, but I didn’t realize how important it is until I started giving speeches. Because I’m a speechwriter, before my first speech, I would write it out, and when I think I delivered it, I was like, “Wow. It was good, but I sounded a little stilted. The sentences sounded like I was not me.” It required that I go back and being like, “OK, how would this sound if I was just sitting one-on-one with someone and trying to communicate the story, or communicate the point that I’m trying to make.” Then you sort of go back and you sand it down and you take out some of the big words, the pretty phrases, and all that kind of stuff. It works a lot better.
Do you find yourself slipping into the rhythm that you would use with President Obama?
Once in awhile I do. I’m not him and I’m not speaking to audiences like he is. I’m not trying to get anyone to elect me or pass any legislation, so I don’t often. Because I wrote for him for so long, I do, for better or worse, think like him and think about politics like he does and think about the way politics is in the world and how the world should be. Because of that, there’s a lot of similarities when I speak about politics and when I speak about public life. It’s similar to how Obama is just because he taught me everything I know about it. He just didn’t teach me everything I know about writing. He taught me everything I know and think about politics. There’s some similarities there.
An homage to your mentor.
Exactly. And there’s his verbal ticks that I’ve picked up once in awhile, like “look.” So every once in awhile, I have to deal with that too.
Can you talk a little bit about the power of written and spoken language and the way that come together and bridge political divides?
I think Obama in ’08 is a good example of this, right? I think what he did very well in the 2004 [Democratic National] Convention speech, and why I wanted to work for him, is he gave a speech . . . For a long time, Republicans sort of owned patriotism, and Democrats’ criticism towards Republicans would be, “oh you guys wrap yourselves in the flag, and that’s ridiculous and we shouldn’t do that.” Obama sort of tried to take patriotism back and redefine what patriotism really is and redefine what loving America is and what America has truly been about for all these years. And so there’s a lot of harkening back to the founding documents, the meaning of the Declaration, the meaning of the Constitution. You can see that he takes this from what Martin Luther King did. If you look at Martin Luther King’s speeches, the Civil Rights movement was not just about African Americans getting rights. It was the next logical step to what the Founders had laid out, that this a country where we’re all created equal.
I think there is a power, especially in a country like America where we are not bound by race, or ethnicity, or tribe, or any specific group. But we’re bound by this idea of what America is and what it can be. Words become even more important, and speeches and rhetoric becomes even more important in our culture and in our country as a way to bring people together, as a way to give people a common ethic and a common language to speak from, to believe in. And so I do think that, especially in this country.
I travel to Europe and give speeches there, and they say that our politicians in Europe, they don’t give big speeches like Obama does or like you guys do in America. And you find that in other places too. But in the United States, I do think there is a power in rhetoric because it’s something that can constantly remind everyone that in a big messy democracy with a lot of different kinds of people, there are certain principles and ideals that hold us all together as a community.
Did you find that anything you and the president wrote was something that you were really proud of and something you’d be able to do something with and when you tried to pitch it to Congress it just hit the wall of gridlock?
Yes, most things. The other side to this is that’s from a campaign, and I think your job in a campaign is to inspire your supporters to go to the polls and persuade people who are on the fence. And these are voters, and they have good sense. They’re good, smart, common sense people. They’re smarter than most politicians give them credit for. But it changes when you’re speaking to Congress because Congress is now extremely partisan, and often when the president would speak out about something — a certain issue or a certain piece of legislation — in favor of it, it would actually make Republicans in Congress more likely to oppose it. For example, during the immigration debate, we came very close to having immigration reform since the Senate passed a bipartisan bill that the president liked; we didn’t have the president go out there and give a lot of big immigration speeches because Republicans in the Senate told us, “look the more he speaks and gins up the base and gives these rallying, rah-rah speeches about immigration, the harder it is for our guys to vote for it.” That’s sad that that’s the truth. Rhetoric has the opposite effect of what you’d like it to be when it’s directed towards a bunch of politicians in Congress. Republicans in Congress were more worried about getting beat in a primary by someone who said you’re too close to Obama than they are the general election.
Some critics have argued that the president’s hopeful rhetoric during the 2008 election set up an idealistic and false expectation of what he could accomplish as president. Do you agree with that statement? Do you think that people have become cynical as a result?
I don’t agree with that because I think what he set up was an idealistic expectation, but it wasn’t of what he could achieve as president on his own. It was an idealistic expectation of what we could achieve as a country together. We’d made sure to say many, many times that the things he talked about on the campaign, the goals he had, were not something that you could achieve in one year, in one term, or in one presidency. That line we had so many different times. People didn’t take it to heart as much, but I’m happy that he set those expectations. I’m happy that he pointed us towards those ideals because I think you need to inspire people to reach for those ideals constantly, knowing that you’re not always going to reach them and sometimes you’re going to come up short. But it is possible to make progress. And at the end of the day, politics is about making progress, and it’s not about creating a perfect union. It’s about perfecting it. If you reach for the ideal, and you don’t get there but you come close, then you’ve changed a lot of lives. Is the health care bill that he passed a perfect health care bill? No, but you know how many millions of people now have health insurance who didn’t have it before? Those people’s lives have changed forever, and that’s a good thing. I think at the end of the day, would I rather someone set lofty goals and ideals and encourage people and inspire people to go work hard to reach those goals, or someone to just say, “hey, this is about all we can hope for with this divided Congress, so let us take care of it as politicians and you guys just vote, and we’ll see you in four years.” I’d rather what Obama did.
What would you say to young people today who have perhaps become cynical with a partisan Congress? You talk about how you were cynical after Sen. Kerry lost in 2004, and your turnaround moment was watching the president [Barack Obama]. What would you say to people?
I would say that there’s a lot of good news out there, and there’s a lot of people doing good things and making a difference. You just don’t hear about it everyday. The media today covers sensationalism, and it covers conflict. And it covers things that are going to get headlines. A story about an individual who did some good work and made a difference in someone’s life is not necessarily going to make the headlines. That doesn’t mean it’s not out there. I was in politics for 10 years, and a good majority of days, even after the Kerry campaign, even in the Obama campaign and in the Obama White House, I would go home and think, “Did I move the needle today? Did I make a difference? Did anything change? Or were we just like shoveling more bullshit, and pushing that rock up the hill and it’s not going anywhere?” And then there are moments — for me it was when we passed health care — that I thought that all that work we did, all that heartache, all that disappointment, all that frustration, that just paid off in a big way. That just didn’t happen to us with Obama. That’s happened for centuries. When you think about how long it took the Civil Rights movement from the moment it started to the moment that [President] Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Bill, and even beyond that, America’s not a story of change happening really fast and really easily. It’s a story of long, incremental, frustrating, maddening — fight for it. I would say that the fight is worth it because at the end of the day, we know from history time and time again that it is possible to create change. It is possible to make a difference in people’s lives. And I think that’s a worthwhile endeavor.
What gives you hope every day?
It gives me hope every time I read a story about someone who said, “I’d never had health insurance in my life, and I had a pre-existing condition — I have cancer — and because we passed this now, I’m going to survive.” Or, “I wasn’t going to be able to afford college and now because the president did something on college loans, now I can do this.” Or, “I felt that my auto plant was going to shut down, and now because the president decided to rescue the auto industry, I have a job.” Countless things like that. Or that gay Americans can now get married. That wasn’t even something the president did. That was something that the Supreme Court did after a movement that started not by any politician — we’re all too cautious about it — but by ordinary people over decades. Those little rays of progress, those stories like that gives me hope. Whenever I get really down about it and everyone is super cynical, which is all the time, I go and I try to find those stories, or I read about them, or I think about it like that. Good things can happen.
When I speak to colleges like [Fordham University], I notice that students are skeptical, but they’re not as cynical as a lot of the people are in D.C., and I think it’s good to be skeptical. I think it’s good to look at institutions and look at powerful people and kind of hold their feet to the fire, but I think there’s a difference between skepticism and cynicism. And I don’t detect cynicism among younger people as must as I do older people, so that gives me hope.