Cody Keenan ’02 spent eight years as a White House speechwriter for President Barack Obama ’06 H. But one week-and-a-half span in June 2015 might have been the most memorable.
He recently wrote Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America about a dramatic period that included a white supremacist shooting at a Charleston, S.C., church and two landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions on marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act.
Now a visiting professor at Northwestern, Keenan teaches a course on speechwriting at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. He talked with Northwestern Magazine about his start in politics, what he learned from the former president and what gives him hope.
On the outside, Obama and I couldn’t be much more different. But we share a worldview, and that made it easier to get into his head and imagine what he would say if he had the time. That’s easier with policy speeches. With topics surrounding race, it was always tough.
The most important thing about speechwriting — besides being able to string sentences together — is having a sense of empathy. You have to understand your audience and try walking in their shoes. But there are limits to empathy, in terms of imagination. I’ve never been racially profiled, asked for my ID or had to have a conversation with my child about what to do when a police officer approaches you. For speeches like that, I needed more time with Obama before I got started. Ultimately, they’re his words — not mine. So, I tried to get as much guidance from him as I could before beginning. That helped a lot.
The president has very high expectations. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to deliver a good draft because he expected it. But then he could always take that draft to a higher place. Whatever we gave him, he made it better. We just didn’t want him to have to do that work, so we went all out to get him a draft that was up to his standards. The reason our relationship worked so well was because I could give him material that might shake loose another thought. If a sentence was good, he would tack on other ideas to make it great. That’s when we were at our best.
I always write better under pressure and with a deadline bearing down on me because there’s no time to overthink. I also had a great support system. My wife, Kristen (my fiancée at the time), was, and still is, my ultimate supporter. She gives me my best ideas. Our White House was, I think, unique in that more people stayed through the entire presidency than any other. The presidential primary campaign was so long and contentious that we were really forged into a family. We loved each other. That might sound cheesy, but it’s true.
When I graduated, I knew I wanted to get into politics, but I didn’t have any connections. I just figured I had to go to Washington. I went to Northwestern. I’d seen every episode of The West Wing. Of course, I’m going to get a job quickly, right? But it was difficult.
I took an internship in the mailroom of Ted Kennedy. I worked for him for four years, getting promoted three times. And in my final job for him, I got to write some speeches because he didn’t have a dedicated speechwriter. And I fell in love with it. To watch someone else read your words on the Senate floor, it was totally electrifying. And I was hooked.
Progress and change are a grind. It takes decades. The day the Supreme Court ruled on the right to marriage equality, I had the president open the speech by saying, “Progress is the slow, steady work of generations. But sometimes there are days like this, when justice comes down like a thunderbolt.”
Those days are few and far between but only happen because people march and organize and toil for decades, often without getting results, and then, bang, sometimes you just get it in one fell swoop.
My students give me hope. They’re different than I was at that age, than my cohort of political science students was, and that’s kind of by necessity. I was born in 1980, and when you look back at the ’80s and ’90s now, it seems like it was a time of relative peace and prosperity.
These students were born the same year 9/11 happened and lived through a devastating recession and a pandemic and two wars. We knew the planet was getting warmer back then, but we didn’t have to live with the worry that the planet would become uninhabitable in our lifetimes. My students have had to go through active shooter drills in high school. They see the need for change as critical and existential in ways that we didn’t necessarily see it in 2000, 2001. But they still get in there anyway. They’re really disappointed with leadership in both parties and politics as it is and want it to be different. And yet they’re not just sitting on their hands and complaining. They actually jump in, and that makes me really hopeful.
Personally, I was proud the day the Chicago Cubs came to the White House after winning the World Series. Traditionally the team that wins the World Series will come the following summer when they’re playing the Washington Nationals [in D.C]. Obama and I [both shared Chicago roots], and we looked at each other like, “Over my dead body are the Cubs coming under somebody else’s presidency.”
They agreed to come the Monday of the final week in office. And it just turned into this two-hour party. Michelle Obama came to a sports team event for the first time ever, and she talked about how she used to sit on her dad’s lap to watch Cubs games on WGN when she was a kid. And I looked around the room, and all these grown athletes were crying. It was awesome.
It’s a testament to our love for each other that Kristen and I still ended up getting married. Imagine your spouse telling you multiple times a day, every single day, that you’re wrong. [As a White House fact-checker], it was literally her job to tell me I was wrong. But she did it in service to something greater. Now she just does it for free. She’s my best friend, and if anyone is allowed to tell me I’m wrong on an hourly basis, it’s Kristen.
The book and my daughter [Grace] were both named at the same time. I finished the proposal and sold the book the first week of November in 2020, and she was born the second week in November. So I think she actually got the official name first, but they’re both named for the concept.
We moved to New York City two months before the pandemic hit, which was really, really bad here, and we found out we were pregnant two weeks before the pandemic. And then that summer there were protests across New York City for two months straight after George Floyd. And then you had this extremely contentious election that dragged on for days as Gracie was due. And through it all, she was just a constant.
The problem, though, is if I ever write another book, I’d have to name it after a second kid — or else he or she is going to have some significant therapy bills.