Adam Frankel: The words themselves are not the hard part. It's being able to empathize, to connect that is the most important part of being a speechwriter, and then the words themselves will just follow.
Ken Harbaugh: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
When I talked to Adam Frankel last week, we covered far too much to fit into just one episode. So this week, we have another special bonus for you. Today, Adam talks about his time as a speechwriter for President Obama.
I'm drawn especially to the speech he gave in I believe it was Iowa - it's the passage about hope as the bedrock of this nation that became really the entire argument of the Obama presidency.
Barack Obama: [https://www.c-span.org/video/?203210-1/obama-iowa-victory] We are choosing hope over fear. [cheers] We are choosing unity over division and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America. [cheers, chanting “USA”]
KH: I'm wondering if, as you penned those words, you realized how definitive they would become of that campaign.
AF: No. I mean, the speech you're referring to is the Iowa Caucus night speech, which Jon Favreau and I wrote a draft of together in an Iowa coffee shop in Des Moines a few days before the caucuses and that speech was a high water mark of idealism in recent American politics. I mean, we had no way of knowing that of course at the time, but we were just pouring our idealism on the page. And we happened to be writing for and working with a candidate who was pretty idealistic himself. And it's something we should all remember and return to. I mean I think that we're in such dark days in this country right now with everything that's happening and it can be tough to find reasons for, avenues for hope. But I find hope from remembering that, from remembering that just a few years ago we had a president who was compassionate and decent and intelligent and wanted to bring this country together instead of pit everybody against each other. And we've had other presidents like that before too. So, I think I'm proud to have been a part of a campaign that set that standard, not just for hope and not just for unity, but also for integrity, for character, for these sorts of other qualities, which are in short supply these days in Washington and in the White House, but I think can provide a North Star for all of us who want to return to those sorts of standards.
KH: I'm wondering if speechwriters as part of the job requirement need be confessional in nature. I mean there's a real emotional vulnerability to the speechwriters I've spoken to. I'm wondering if the job draws that out of people or if you need that going in.
AF: Well I think that one of the most, if not the most important quality of a speech, at least for a political leader, is to connect with the audience. I mean, that's kind of the name of the game and in order to do that, you need to be able to empathize with the audience. You need to be able to forge some sort of emotional link with the audience and to be able to do so with different audiences and people from different walks of life, which means you're really trying to connect at a fundamental level that is deeper than any kind of outward appearance. So I think that the job, especially for presidential candidates and the White House really demands that, at least if one is going to aspire to do it well. It brings that out of you as a writer. It's important. I mean, when we were working in the White House on a whole variety of speeches, when we were singling out individuals, I remember after the West Virginia mine disaster, the President gave a eulogy and I was on the phone with people who had worked with miners, who had been miners and could help me understand that experience, could help me understand what the job entailed, what the kind of life entailed. And it's important to I think be able to really understand that deeply and to be able to express it, to be able to connect with the audience. So, absolutely tha i's a fundamental part of it. It's not just... The words themselves are not the hard part. It's being able to empathize, to connect that is the most important part of being a speechwriter, and then the words themselves will just follow.
KH: You're pretty clear in assessing the strength of the Obama speechwriting team by saying that the best speechwriter on that team was President Obama. What was it like to write speeches for someone who was a better speechwriter than anyone on the team?
AF: Well I should add, in Barack Obama's own words, he was a better speechwriter than his speechwriters, as he said on the record.
KH: Yea, add eyeroll, right?
AF: Yeah, yeah. But the thing about that was, I couldn't disagree with him. None of us could. So we could roll our eyes, but we couldn't disagree with him. He was. I mean look, we'd always get his edits back and he'd make the speeches better without fail. I'd sort of eagerly await his edits because we'd get these drafts back with his beautiful penmanship and I'd always kind of just be eager to see what notes he'd given or what fixes he'd made. You know, he just has a very distinctive way of writing and thinking and he'd always phrase things in ways that I found surprising and never would've thought of myself. And I think one of the things that as speechwriters you often get is, "Oh, you know, something about this draft just doesn't feel right" without much guidance about what exactly to do about it.
AF: But, Barack Obama is a writer and he would never do that. So, if he had a problem with something he would tell you exactly what to do to fix it, structurally or in terms of line edits. He was editor-in-chief among his many other responsibilities and it was a privilege, honestly. It was a privilege for a number of reasons but including in that respect. I mean, I think a lot of presidential speechwriters and I've had the good fortune to get to know a bunch of them because it's a relatively small group. Over the years we've occasionally had gatherings of what's called The Judson Welliver Society of former presidential wordsmiths named after Warren G. Harding's speechwriter or something. But so I’ve sort of gotten to know some of them and what I've found is many of them are just extraordinary writers. They've worked for presidents who they believed in, but who themselves were not great writers and didn't claim to be or in some cases probably want to be. And so the speechwriters would sometimes write the speeches, hand them to the president who would just deliver them without making any edits. I mean Peggy Noonan has written about writing draft speeches that Reagan just delivered and barely spending any time with Reagan. And so just from the perspective of a writer, we were in a great, a very fortunate position to have that kind of collaborative relationship with Obama where it really was an exchange. I mean I'm not going to say every speech was like that, but many of them were and certainly the most important ones all were. He was deeply, deeply involved from beginning to end, from sort of conceiving it and structuring it to line edits right before delivery.
KH: Thanks again to Adam Frankel for joining me.
Next week, we’ll be back to our regular episodes again. I’m talking with Mary Beth Bruggeman, president of The Mission Continues, about her organization’s work integrating veterans back into their communities through service and about her own experiences as a leader and as a woman in the Marine Corps.
And make sure you join in our discussion. Tell us about a time when your identity or background brought something to the table. Leave us a message at 216-245-5461 or send a voice memo to [email protected].
Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews and Michael DeAloia. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Our theme music is Climbing to Greatness by Cody Martin.
If you enjoyed today’s episode of Burn the Boats, please rate and review us on iTunes - it really helps other listeners find the show.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcasts about big decisions.