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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

Jon Favreau, Speechwriter

“For the first time, Obama sees it and he’s like, ‘I actually don’t have that many edits’.”

Favreau working on a speech with President Barack Obama.  

I started writing speeches for John Kerry when I was 21. And I basically only got the job because I was a press assistant on the campaign, and we were losing to Howard Dean, and the campaign was running out of money and there was a big shake-up and all these people got fired, and they needed a deputy speechwriter and at that point they couldn’t really afford to hire a real one. No one really wanted to join what looked like a sinking ship. He went on to have a whole general election, but throughout that whole time, I always sort of thought that I had landed the job by accident. As a writer, you can never tell if you’re good anyway without doubting yourself.

I met with Obama after Kerry lost and Obama won the Senate seat. Robert Gibbs had recruited me for this job because he was my boss when I was with the Kerry campaign. And he’s like, “Look, Obama’s never worked with a speechwriter before in his life — he’s written all his own stuff. But now he’s a senator; he’s going to need to learn to work with someone, whether he likes it or not.” And when I met with Obama he was unbelievably nice, we had a great conversation, it was the most easygoing interview I’ve ever had. And at the very end he said, “Well, I still don’t think I need a speechwriter, but you seem nice enough, so let’s give this a whirl.”

So I start with Obama through the Senate, thinking, you know, I had been at the convention when he gave that speech in 2004. That was all him, and that hung over my head the entire time I started writing for him. Because I thought, Never will I help write a speech like this, right? He is the master — I was there when he gave one of the best speeches I heard, and he wrote it. And his first two years in the Senate, I think we wrote some decent speeches together, and then he announced for president, and — it’s hard to remember now — but for most of 2007, he was badly trailing Hillary Clinton. And on the stump, he would go and give 40-, 50-minute speeches in Iowa that were long and sort of rambling and workmanlike, and he’s better than that but it was a tough race, and when a race gets tough there’s more pressure and everyone starts yelling at you, you start just going out and saying all kinds of different things and making your speeches longer. The knock against him was “Oh, she’s all substance and you’re all style.” So to counter that I think Obama went out and tried to show everyone just how smart he was on every issue, and the speeches became very long and involved. And, you know, I’m Mr. Speechwriter in the campaign, and I’m like, “Well, I’m not fixing this, so I’m sort of a failure here.”

And so now it’s like October of 2007, and there’s literally headlines that say — I had one hanging up from the New York Post that said, “Hillary Ready for Her Coronation.” We were down in Iowa, and our last chance there is the speech that Obama’s giving at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa. A couple of us that had been with the Kerry campaign in 2004 remembered that that was the speech that Kerry gave that sort of turned the race around and helped him beat Dean in Iowa. And so we looked at the speech the same way. Now, the interesting thing about this speech is, all the candidates deliver this speech. It’s the last time that all the candidates deliver a speech one after another before the caucusing begins, and the whole media’s there — national media, local media. There’s no prompter, and there’s a time limit of about ten minutes. So you have to deliver a ten-minute speech without a prompter and you have to make your best case for your candidacy. All the pressure was on this speech; everyone was like, “This is our only hope here. Maybe we can pull even with Hillary after this or catch up in the polls.” And because there was so much pressure on it, writing and drafting were impossible — there’s a million conference calls with everyone saying, “Emphasize this, emphasize that.” Me and Ben Rhodes and Adam Frankel probably went through ten, 15 drafts of that speech, staying up till three in the morning, having them rejected the next day by people because everyone was so involved. Obama didn’t know exactly what he wanted to say, and Axelrod didn’t know, and there was all kinds of calls and meetings.

The president’s notes on his second inaugural speech.  

So, finally, there was a speech planned a couple weeks before the JJ that we sort of just made up — it was basically a year before the actual election, right? Like the anniversary of the year before the real election. And no one on the campaign was really paying attention to that speech because everyone was so focused on the JJ. So what I did is I pretty much wrote a speech that I thought he should give at the JJ. I kind of snuck it in there. But I always remember now: The night that he was on SNL, I had a bunch of people over at my apartment in Chicago. He was supposed to give that speech that I had written, the practice speech, that day. I hadn’t heard how the speech went but I had a bunch of people over at my apartment to look at the SNL skit. It’s like 11, 11:30. And suddenly I get a call from Axelrod and he said, “Obama just gave the speech — totally blew up the place. He loves it and he says that that’s what the JJ needs to be. But the trick is, he needs you to cut this 20-minute speech down to a ten-minute speech so he can start practicing, and he needs you to do it by tomorrow morning.” So I was in my apartment with everyone over, I’ve had a beer or two, but immediately I kick everyone out, I change over to Red Bull and coffee, and I walked down to the campaign at midnight and stayed up all night until about 10 or 11 a.m. the next day, and I wrote the JJ speech. And I finished the draft and for the first time, you know, Obama sees it and he’s like, “I actually don’t have that many edits. I think it’s a pretty good speech.” So he practices that speech, practices memorizing that speech more than I had ever seen him do before, because he’s never really had to memorize a speech word for word. Like when we were at a hotel in Des Moines a couple weeks before the speech, if you walked by Obama’s hotel room you could hear him practicing the speech to himself and the mirror, just trying to memorize it.

There are two important moments in that speech. One paragraph distilled the whole race of why Obama and not Hillary at the time, right? Which was like, “This part of Jefferson and Jackson and of Kennedy and Roosevelt knows that we’re better off when we lead not by polls but by principle; not by calculation but by conviction. And that’s what this party’s about.” Something like that. And then there was this nice thing at the end that a lot of people didn’t notice in the campaign just because it wasn’t central to the message against Hillary, but he sort of quieted down at the very end of that speech and he said, “I’ll never forget that I would never be where I am right now unless someone somewhere stood up for me when it was hard.” You know, when it wasn’t easy. “And then because that one person stood up, a few more stood up, and then a few thousand more stood up, and then millions more stood up, and because they stood up we changed the world.” And that was sort of the first time we linked the history of him possibly being the first black president and civil rights with a message of the campaign, which was grassroots organizing to make a difference. And that’s sort of how we ended that speech, and that was always pretty meaningful to me.

So we get to the JJ, and somehow, by the luck of the draw, the order of the candidates’ speeches was that all the other candidates go first, Hillary goes second to last, and Obama goes last. So all these candidates go, get out of the way. Hillary gives her speech and the crowd’s all quiet for Hillary because she’s obviously the front-runner. And she gives a speech that is like all … I mean, you could tell there were a lot of slogans that were shopped around in her campaign. So the speech was something about “Turn up the heat, turn America around,” and all the supporters in the stands were supposed to yell, “Turn up the heat!” It didn’t work that well. And then there’s a pause and then Obama gets up there and he delivered — way better than it was written — the JJ speech. I was sitting there watching all the reporters, and all the reporters were like, “That’s it — that’s the speech. This is something big.” The crowd went completely insane. Even some of the other candidates’s supporters were going nuts.

The last time I had been in a room where he gave a speech like that was 2004, when I was a kid working for John Kerry. And to have been there in Iowa at that moment when I had helped work on the speech and just help sort of see, you know, history unfolding in this arena, it was incredible and it was the first moment in my life that I thought to myself, Okay, maybe I got the hang of this. From then on it felt like something clicked and then we had the Iowa victory speech and the New Hampshire speech, the “Yes We Can” speech and all that other kind of stuff. And it worked out from then on, but the JJ was sort of the first moment that I was like, Okay, I think I might have something to contribute here. I think I can be of use. That to me was probably the breakthrough.

It was also the first time I thought we would win. I mean, when we started, we thought it was a long shot — “Who knows?” — but then August, September roll around, October even, and we’re like, “I don’t know if we’re gonna do this. It seems we might come up short.” And then he gave that speech and it was great because most people from Chicago were in Des Moines that night, the whole campaign was there, and we — a couple of us had driven out from Chicago to go see the speech, me and my friend, just to be there. And you know, it was the first time that I thought, “It’s gonna happen. It could actually happen and turn this around.”

But it didn’t really resonate for me then. Not yet. It didn’t until we won Iowa. But I remember the first time I saw him after we won Iowa, he came out of his hotel room after editing that speech, and he just looked at me and he goes, “Speeches, man.” And he gave me a big hug and I was like, All right.