Finding the right words for a rarely speechless US president – The Irish Times
It was June 2015 and the only time during Barack Obama’s presidency that he “run out of words” to offer comfort to an American public grappling with another mass shooting.
Remarks delivered the day after a white supremacist killed nine African Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, were the 14th time Obama addressed the nation after a mass shooting, but he was to find the words for the eulogy of Clementa Pinckney, the church pastor and one of the victims, it would be one of the most difficult tasks of his presidency.
That job fell to Cody Keenan, Obama’s top speechwriter who was tasked with finding something new to say on a topic the president had to talk about too often.
“There’s no way to run out of words,” Keenan says. “You can always find words; you can always find inspiration.
In his new book Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America, the 42-year-old from Chicago shares how he and Obama found that inspiration. Keenan takes readers on a flying trip on the wall inside the White House during a whirlwind 10 days when he helped Obama craft one of the most impactful speeches of his presidency.
It was a defining period in Obama’s presidency. In that short time, the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage and upheld a key part of its landmark law that made health care affordable for Americans. While awaiting those court rulings, Keenan has been scrambling to find a new response for Obama to a mass shooting that exposed the country’s tragically routine struggle with racism and gun violence.
In Keenan’s memoir, he writes about how Obama admitted to his wordmaster that he really didn’t know what he meant in the eulogy. He remembers Obama giving him nearly impossible instructions: talk about guns, about race, about the Confederate flag – an enduring symbol of racism in the United States – and “the pain it brings to so many citizens, and wrap it all up in grace”. ”.
“I was just there going, ‘What does that mean?’ Now I have to figure that out,” Keenan recalled.
Some of the words they eventually came up with weren’t scripted and not spoken, but sung. Obama’s famous “Amazing Grace” speech, singing the anthem in an impromptu finish, exemplified his power as one of this generation’s greatest orators to capture the emotional charge of a dramatic moment in life. American politics and helping Americans through a traumatic event that was difficult to understand.
Keenan wanted to write about this period because of “the magnitude of these events all cram into 10 days”. Another reason was, he said, because the issues of marriage equality, affordable health care and the flag all posed fundamental questions of American society: Does the country believe that all Americans are created equal? and what will people do to protect that?
“Each of these events went to something primitive and unanswered about this country and in these 10 days we responded to it as a country probably as well as you could,” he says.
In a passage of Irish interest, Keenan looks back on Obama’s trip to Ireland in 2011 to explain Obama’s “unique gifts” for attracting a broad political coalition. He writes that his walk around the home of his Irish ancestor Fulmouth Kearney in Moneygall, Co Offaly “moved him” and how it showed “a family bond made no less real by his black skin”.
“A lot of people in Ireland laugh at the whole Moneygall thing, but why should this great, great, great grandfather be any different from a Kenyan great, great, great grandfather. It’s the same thing and he was really moved by it,” says Keenan.
The former speechwriter knows the limits of speeches. He admits they won’t give the pardon that American politics so badly needs, although he thinks they can set a vision on how to go about it.
“It really comes down to the rest of us pushing back against misinformation and hate, and voting in every election. This is going to require a whole new generation of people who want to serve and change the way politics and government work,” he says.
As a “proud Democrat,” Keenan is tired of “living in a gerontocracy” where most of the nation’s political leaders are over 70.
“It’s time for fresh blood that’s more like the rest of the country and lived more like the rest of the country,” he says.
Keenan recalls Michelle Obama’s recent remarks at the unveiling of the former first couple’s White House portraits and how she said someone like her was never meant to be there.
His hope is that Obama’s greatest legacy will be “this whole generation of people running for office who aren’t supposed to run for office, people who are more representative of the country as a whole, not just in their background, but also by their education, economic status and life experience”.
Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America by Cody Keenan is published by Mariner Books at £25 (€28.60)