WASHINGTON -- It is surprisingly difficult to write speeches for President Barack Obama, one of the most gifted orators in recent political history.
Yes, written words tend to sound better when he's reciting them. But the sheer number of speeches he's delivered and the magnitude of the moments in which they are given make it tough to be original and even harder to be memorable. The speech-writing process can be arduous and time consuming; it provokes self-doubt.
In his first interview since helping write the president's second inaugural address, Jon Favreau, director of speechwriting for the White House, acknowledged grappling with all these challenges. The speech, which Favreau said would probably be one of the last he will write in his current post, was praised as crisp, bold and assertive -– a standout in Obama's already rich canon of past addresses. But getting to that point was difficult.
"It was one of the hardest speeches I've written," Favreau said.
And he's written quite a few. Favreau has worked with Obama since 2005, helping his boss speak about his greatest triumphs, his public humiliations, dicey political topics and complex policy negotiations. The second inaugural address, an affirmation of sorts of the work they've done together, was conceived through a now familiar routine.
The process started in early December. After sharing ideas with the president, Favreau looked back at a number of second inaugural addresses to figure out what has worked in the past. Several speeches stood out -- some were obvious choices, others not.
"Lincoln's second inaugural was very specific to the time and space he was in," recalled Favreau. "I actually thought that [George W.] Bush's second inaugural was quite good as a rhetorical exercise. I obviously didn't agree with a lot of the policy in there. But he kept to a theme, which was, the success of liberty here depends on the success of liberty everywhere."
He also gathered a dozen or so of Obama's best addresses -– "a binder full of speeches" –- and mined them for inspiration, memorable turns of phrase and compelling themes. At the top of the list was the commencement speech Obama delivered at Knox College as a senator in 2005, when he spoke generally about the need for collective action in a global society.
"We always go back" to that speech, Favreau said.
He then set out to write a draft.
"We wanted to make sure that we were going to pick one theme and not go all over the place. And the president said, "Look there's the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and for 200 years the American story has been about making those promises real,'" recalled Favreau. For an underlying theme, they settled on the notion that "alongside our rugged individualism, there's another strand of American belief which is that we're all in this together -- e pluribus unum, out of many, one."
Finding a broad concept was straightforward enough. Putting meat on its bones, and keeping the speech relatively short -- Favreau's goal -- was trickier. Inaugural addresses often make history with a singular, memorable line. But Favreau and his team don't operate with that mindset.
"We've never tried nor been good at writing to lines, and we both know that," he said. "There is a temptation ... But I think that really good lines, history judges that ten years down the road. The harder you write for a line, the more likely your line is to become something that is sort of cliché."
The president also wanted to make sure that specific topics -- what he calls "buckets" -- were addressed, starting with the economy and social safety net, and going through climate change, national security and foreign policy, and equality. All of those subjects had appeared in speeches past, but their inclusion in the second inaugural address required a more delicate touch.
You couldn't "just bury your head in the sand" when it came to the politics of the past four years, Favreau argued. So they decided to directly address the conflicting philosophical visions of the president and of conservative Republicans. From there came the speech's forthright tone and its most combative line: that entitlement programs "do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."
The inclusion of climate change, which received heavy media attention in the aftermath of the speech, was not a controversial decision during the writing process, Favreau said. The president had discussed it on election night and many times before.
The lines about gay rights -- and, in particular, the reference to the 1969 Stonewall Riots – were more complicated additions, but still, ultimately, an easy call.
"Up until the weekend before the speech we hadn't thought that Stonewall would be such a big deal," said Favreau. "We had just come from this campaign where we talked about gay rights all the time. The line about Stonewall and Selma and Seneca Falls was actually in the commencement speech he gave at Barnard [in 2012]. And so we brought it back for this because it hadn't gotten much attention at all."
"We knew we wanted to pay tribute to [Martin Luther] King in some way. So it kind of fit right there," he added. "Before he gave the speech, I'm like, I actually think this is going make some news because it's probably the first time a president has mentioned the word "gay" or "Stonewall" in an inaugural speech."
Two Sundays before the speech, Favreau had a draft. From there, he and the president continued to exchange edits. Obama jotted down his thoughts -- longhand and with small, neat penmanship -- on a yellow notepad, a mild irritant for the speechwriting team, which remembered fondly how he would use track changes on his laptop during the 2008 campaign. It was impossible to recall how many actual drafts the two had gone through.
"He's known for his rhetoric, right?" said Favreau. "But he's also got a very lawyerly, logical mind. And so the thing he always does best is putting every argument in order."
The night before the inauguration, Obama was done editing. All that was left to do was underline certain words so that they'd get proper emphasis in the delivery. The president did a read-through in the map room of the White House that night.
On Monday, the two rode together in the presidential motorcade to the Capitol Building. Favreau left shortly thereafter to sit in the crowd and watch with his parents. He doesn't mind listening to the speeches he writes, he said. It's the thought of following the commentary on Twitter that gives him cold sweats.
Favreau is going to help out with Obama's upcoming State of the Union address, which is slated for early February. But that, he believes, will be the last speech he works on inside the White House, the second inaugural being a more than adequate send off.
"This is definitely one of my favorites that we've worked on together, I think," he said, when asked to rank this speech among those he's helped write with Obama. "I just think it kind of laid everything out there that he believes, that he has been fighting for the last eight years -- longer -- in public life, in a pretty succinct, energetic, forceful 18 minutes."
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