That pot Kenny show on Newstalk. Political and economic and social barriers came down and the change these men and women wrought is visible here today in the presence of African-Americans who run boardrooms, who sit on the bench, who serve in elected office from small towns to big cities, from the Congressional Black Caucus all the way to the Oval Office. A well crafted speech delivered with impeccable oration and poise by the former US President Barack Obama, that was from his 2015 speech marking the fiftieth anniversary commemoration of Bloody Sunday in Selma.
And the man who wrote that speech is on the line now, Cody Keenan. Cody, good morning and welcome. Good morning. How are you?
I'm very well. How is it that you came to write political speeches and for such eminences as Barack Obama and Joe Biden? There was a lot of luck involved. I first started in politics right out of college, working in Ted Kennedy's mailroom in the Senate and just kind of stuck with it, ended up as an intern on the Obama campaign.
And 14 years later, I still work for the guy.
Tell me how you become a speechwriter. I mean, presumably you're sitting around as part of the team and you start chipping in with ideas. Is that it? Yeah, there's no one way to do it.
I've never met somebody who just decided they wanted to become a speechwriter. And when did it all of us just kind of fell into it. For me. It was when I was working in the Senator Ted Kennedy. My boss stuck his head around the corner one day. He was just overworked and he asked me if I could write a speech. And I lied and said yes. And I got the bug pretty quickly. So, you know, with with Obama's team, it was helpful that he had been working with a writer named John Favreau for four years.
Once I joined and John was two years of John was just a great mentor. And by the time John left the White House, you know, I was ready to step in and take his place. Are there particular ingredients to a good political speech? Yes, it should always tell a story, you know, where we've been, where we are, where we need to go, it should have some sort of call to action. You know, if you have a captive audience in your hands, that's a terrible thing to waste.
You should always ask them for something. And, you know, I'd always add some emotion and empathy on there to it. The best way to connect with someone is to find some sort of universal values or truths or story they can see themselves in. And, you know, I've always been a speechwriter who tries to go for the gut in the heart because I'm not always smart enough to go over that. It does depend on your performer, though, I suppose, because there are some people who just cannot deliver a speech effectively, you know, there's an old adage, and I don't know who coined the phrase, there is no such thing as a bad short speech.
And sometimes when I hear politicians going on, I think they should bear that in mind. If they can't enthral and engross their audience, then they should not give a long speech. That's exactly right. You know, it it's hard to write short, a lot of political speeches end up going on way too long. We've been guilty of that with the Obamas.
But the greatest speech in American history was only less than two hundred words, the Gettysburg Address. So you can do it. It just requires discipline. And ironically, it takes a lot more work to write short than it does to write long. I think George Bernard Shaw said something to that effect, I would have written you a short note, but I didn't have the time, he said.
A better yet, brevity being the soul of wit, but also difficult to to achieve in terms of the way people speak. I mean, you have written for Obama.
You've also written for Joe Biden at the Democratic nominee, very different speech patterns.
And therefore, I suspect your skills have to be applied differently.
They are very different, I should say. I've never written for Joe Biden, but I've been you know, I know his team really well. I've helped them from time to time when they ask, not often, but that's very true. I mean, part of speech writing is, you know, understanding your boss, you know, getting in his or her head and not just understanding what they want to say, but why they want to say it.
And, you know, I can remember who told me, but a great piece of advice I got early on was, you know, you should only give a speech that only you can give if it's a speech that, you know, you could just put in front of anybody and they can deliver it, then you failed. So you want to work in the speaker's biography, their moral code, their values, their beliefs and whatever it is, you know, you shouldn't be able to put it in front of somebody else.
When you're writing for Barack Obama, I mean, you're sitting there in front of a screen, are you hearing his voice? Only when it's going well, so sometimes there's quite a bit of panic. Yeah, and it takes a while. You know, it took me a few years. I when I joined the campaign in 2007, it was almost two years before I met him face to face because he was out campaigning. The first time I met him was in the Oval Office.
And so early on it was mimicry. And then I had to tell Ed and John, but only with spending time with the person for whom you're writing, do you actually get to understand who they are, what makes them tick and what they want to say. And, you know, it's a bit like if you've lived abroad, the first time you dream in a foreign language is when you really kind of get it. And, you know, the first time you dream and Barack Obama's voice a, it's a very strange B, that's when you kind of finally gotten it.
So at this point, 14 years that I think I can do it pretty well. But there are still moments when you're staring at the blank screen just freaking out. Now, Barack Obama, when he was in the White House and you were writing for him, I mean, he might have to make I don't know how our politicians might have to make five or six speeches a day.
Some of them would be to the plumbers union, congratulating them on their excellent work and completing a job or whatever it might be, workaday stuff. Did you have to do any of that kind of workaday stuff or were you concentrating on the big set pieces in the beginning?
I did for sure. I mean, when I joined the White House in January of 2009, I was the junior speechwriter on the totem pole. So I was doing all the workday stuff by the second term, maybe two or three years in to the first term.
I was working on bigger things and once I became director of speech writing, you know, I'd edit what the other speechwriters worked on, but we were a close knit team. And, you know, I should point out, I think people have seen the photos of how President Obama edits a speech, and he's always been our chief speechwriter. He's actively involved in all the big speeches. But, you know, we did three thousand five hundred and seventy seven while he was in the White House.
So there's there's plenty of forgettable ones. There's plenty those workaday ones, I should say. There is no lobby in America that gets three speeches in one day every year except for the Irish. So, you know, we had to do twenty four St. Patrick's Day speeches over the course of the years. There's no doubt that someone like Donald Trump, when he extemporize, he has a fluidity, his vocabulary is not that broad. But still, you know, he he uses tricks like calling people by nicknames, diminishing them generally in the process.
But when he extemporizing, he can be quite effective. And there is, you know, the great, I suppose, political fire he lights onto his base when he does that, then he sticks to the teleprompter and it all goes a bit flat. So, yeah, that's very better adlibbing and those who slavishly need the teleprompter.
That's very perceptive. I mean, fluidity is one word for it, but you can tell when he's on a teleprompter, he's uncomfortable. He's not great at it. I don't think he enjoys it. And he's got this tell that he never actually looks at the speech before he's delivering it. He'll stop in the middle and, you know, he'll recite just a very common sense fact. World War two ended in nineteen forty five and then he'll add not a lot of people know that.
Well, yes, we do. Almost everybody does. The fact that he just learned it, reading it in the teleprompter isn't our problem, but it's a good point. I mean, it's not just that Barack Obama has facility with a teleprompter. He actually cares about the speech craft. And the reason he used a teleprompter was not as a crutch. It was because by the time we got the speech there, he'd worked through it enough and we'd worked through it enough that every word was exactly where he wanted it.
There's a precision to it. And once the speech is exactly the way you want it, you just put it in the teleprompter and you read it the way that you've carefully put it together. That's a big difference between President Bush and President Trump. He'll just read basically whatever you put in there, like the movie Anchorman. Did you write the speech at the funeral of John Lewis? I worked with the president on it. He was actively involved, of course, I'm, you know, good to in good ways and bad.
I remain his only speechwriter. So, yeah, I helped him with that.
Now, the reason I ask, because watching that speech, I mean, Barack Obama's timing is amazing for anyone who's ever had to make a speech. He holds the audience. He pauses. His silences are just the right length. But what I observed there and heard there was the kind of repetitive thing that is a trick originally trick, a device, whatever used by Martin Luther King.
I have a dream. And there was a repetition of that. And the crowd almost repeated to it to a call and response kind of thing. And at certain stages, when Barack Obama would make a point at that funeral oration, the crowd, a few of them would say, amen.
Were you ever surprised by what happens to your speech when it's in the mouth of Barack Obama? No, and that's been one of the blessings of working for him that, you know, he can deliver the heck out of anything, even the workaday stuff there. He does develop a pretty intense relationship with the audience. And sometimes it's up to the audience as to to inform his delivery. You know, he he can feel them if they're receptive to it.
I don't know if that makes any sense. But, you know, in a setting like the John Lewis funeral, you know, in a black church, it's always kind of a warm back and forth. I think what added a little urgency to those remarks is you're looking at an audience that's sitting masked six feet apart, and it kind of underscores the urgency of the moment. And you can see that. But, yeah, you know, it happened in Charleston and a bunch of other speeches.
If you've got an audience there that's going back and forth with you, it's basically like take them in a church.
Have you ever seen him cut and run a piece of advice I got years ago from one of my senior colleagues was if it ain't going well, so thank you very much and conclude, have you ever seen the president do that?
No, he's stubborn. He'll stick it out. You know, there was one speech once where a teleprompter fell over and shattered and he just continued from the book. And, you know, there are hecklers from time to time, but he'll actually engage with them rather than cut and run. He's he's got a lot of confidence in his own ability. And that comes from, you know, spending time with with the remarks before he delivered them. How important will speechifying be in the forthcoming campaign, because much of it is going to be on television.
There'll be probably small gatherings of people socially, dissidents wearing masks and so on. But a lot of it's going to be on the telly. Yeah, you know, I'd argue it's always important, whatever the format, whatever the circumstance, I mean, you're if you're running for office, you need to give people some sort of vision to latch on to and some sort of message, some sense of who you are, even if it's, you know, even if you're without a crowd nowadays, it's sadly it's not going to happen three or four times a day for each candidate, which actually makes the speeches even more important.
At the DNC National Convention, what did you make of it, because it was very innovative and use technology to a huge degree and it was more like, I suppose, a Hollywood production than a political production.
Yeah, I'll be honest, going into it, I was pretty nervous. I didn't know what to expect. You know, no party had ever tried something like this before, but I was very relieved and surprised at how well it went. And I had nothing to do with it. But, you know, to watch the way that they were able to do a live production with mixed and taped moments from coast to coast and work in stories about, you know, by the end of it, you saw that the Democrats are the bigger tent party, that we have a hopeful, you know, joyful and pragmatic vision.
And that's a lot harder for the Republicans to do this week because they're a shrinking party with an exclusionary and often mean vision. And it's just a tougher story for them to tell and for everybody who was looking for, you know, Donald Trump, the showman, to put on some great show what it really was, at least on night one, was just a bunch of his family and staff talking at the same podium in the same empty room. And they had time to prepare for this.
So maybe they'll get their acts together over the next few nights. But so far, I don't really think it's much of a contest as far as the conventions go.
How do you see November working out? Because, you know, Trump was written off before and although he did lose the popular vote, that's not the way the American system works. The Democrats are saying I think it was Hillary Clinton precisely who said that Donald Trump could lose the popular vote by five million votes and still using the Electoral College system end up in the White House for another four years.
Yeah, that's true, and that should that should put a fire under people to go to the polls and vote, if anybody tells you they know how to vote is going to shake out, they're lying. Nobody has any idea. I mean, you know, one thing I think we need to see is, are our media and our television networks are prone to cover this entire thing as if it's a sporting event and they love election night. They love being able to declare a winner.
And I think people need to get it through their head that this is going to be more like election month. It's going to take a long time to count mail in ballots. It's going to take a long time to count in-person voting. And I don't think it's going to be clean on election night. I think it's going to take some time. And so the media has to be ready for that. And people ought to be ready for that because President Trump will try to call it rigged and declare victory on election night.
And that could take us somewhere pretty dark in the weeks beyond that. And into a Supreme Court where his nominees with the other conservatives hold the balance. It's not great that. No. Anyway, it's hard for many of us it is such a disappointment to see the way America has gone. It was always seen as the land of the free, the land of the fair, the land of opportunity. And it all seems so different now.
Can it can it regain its status in the affections of many people around the world? It can, but it's going to take some time and it's going to take a lot of work. I don't think we can just expect, you know, the world to immediately snap back to the way it was into the way the United States just maybe a few years ago. You know, and it's deeply upsetting to a lot of us, especially those of us who care about our relationship with Ireland.
You know, the president, President Obama clearly did on our visits. And, you know, at least for you guys, will be nice to have a president who visits for reasons beyond plugging his golf course. But President Obama talked about this a lot last week. And, you know, if anybody's got some time to kill at home, I suggest you try to find that speech. But it talked a lot about who this country is at our best.
And, you know, even when even when we fall short, we try to learn from that and do better. And that's what America is at its best when it's when it's constantly trying to be the best version of itself and set an example for the world to follow. And we're falling really short. And it's just it's appalling here that, you know, not only did we elect a president who promised to build a wall, but Americans aren't allowed to travel to the rest of the world right now.
I mean, the wall has been built around us purely by the incompetence of our sitting president. And it's it's deeply distressing.
I've got Obama's speech at the Democratic convention, and one of the commentators afterwards said, you know, one of the things that came through was not so much anger on the part of Obama, but what Trump has done, but fear for the future and what might lie ahead if there's another four years.
Yeah, that's I mean, that's that's pretty accurate. You know, I don't know if I'd use the word fear. I'd use I'd use a despairing at what what might happen. I mean, if if the speech unsettled people, it should. That was the point because, you know, this is happening and people need to feel a sense of urgency and not just go vote on November 3rd, but, you know, find out where they can vote.
Right now. Some states let you start doing it early, request that absentee ballot, get it in and leave. No doubt. I mean, everything we care about is on the line. And democracy itself doesn't just snap back either. You know, you can lose it. And restoring it is a long process. So people should take him. People should take his speech literally, not performance art. That was the real thing. And, you know, my wife and I request that our absentee ballots and we're going to mail them in as soon as we can.
Cody Keenan, Barack Obama's speechwriter, Cody, thank you very much for joining us on the program today.
Thanks, Betty. Coming up.