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Departing Obama Speechwriter: 'I Leave This Job Actually More Hopeful'

Behind most politicians is a speechwriter, typing rapidly somewhere in a small office and trying to channel the boss's voice.

The man who has held perhaps the most prominent speechwriting job of the new millennium is Jon Favreau, a 31-year-old from Massachusetts who was President Obama's chief speechwriter until this month. He started writing for Obama when the president was just a senator in 2005.

He tells Audie Cornish, host of All Things Considered , that writing for the president means walking a line between two worlds.

"You're trying to balance what the president would want to say with what people are looking to hear," he says. "But you need to strike the right balance, because if it's all what people want to hear, that's not true to who he is."

obama speechwriting team

Jon Favreau, President Obama's former chief speechwriter, is pictured on the South Lawn of the White House in 2010. Charles Dharapak/AP hide caption

Favreau says his next stop after the White House is starting a communications consulting firm; he plans to write a screenplay based on his experiences.

"We'll see how long it takes for me to find my own voice again," he says.

Interview Highlights

On the writing process

"My challenge is to make sure that whatever he's thinking, whatever thoughts he has, we can get them down on paper, and we can shape the words to basically what he really wants to say. So our process is, I will sit down with him, we'll talk for 20 or 30 minutes, and he'll have lots of thoughts on the specific speech that he's going to give. And then I will go back, and I'll work with my team, and we will put together a draft that reflects the conversation that the president and I had.

"And then we'll start going back and forth. Sometimes he will just make line edits himself and send the draft back. Or sometimes he will want to take the speech in an entirely different direction, and he will write six or seven pages of scrawled handwriting on a yellow legal pad, and we'll go back at it that way."

On the editing process

"There have been times where I'll have a phrase in there and he'll take it out — and then I'll explain to him, 'Well, I put it in here because if we do it this way, maybe it'll be a sound bite or maybe we'll get a quote that way or, rhythmic-wise, it'll be better.' And ... once in a while he'll say, 'Oh, I think you're right, let's do it this way.' And sometimes he'll say, 'No, I think the way I had it was better.' And that's just how we work. We have a very honest relationship."

On collaborating on Obama's famous race speech

"When I talk about the speech, I always say, you know, the stuff in the speech that you could hear almost any other politician say is mostly the stuff that I contributed. ... Before he gave it, he called me after a long day of campaigning, and he spoke for an hour about what he wanted in that speech. He told me it was going to be random thoughts off the top of his head, and they were not random at all. He had the entire logical argument all ready. ... He laid out the whole thing."

On his departing thoughts

"I leave this job actually more hopeful than when I first got there, and that is because I think that the president went into this more realistically than many people thought that he did. I've been working on these speeches since 2005, and so I know that almost every speech, he makes sure we have the caveat that, 'This is going to be hard.' ... He's not mistaken about how difficult some of this stuff is."

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International Edition

The story of speechwriting for President Obama

Article highlights.

Want some tips on effective communication? Then look no further than former Obama speechwriter and bestselling author @DavidLitt

How did a junior campaign volunteer become a speechwriter for @BarackObama in the White House? @DavidLitt tells us his story

A mix of the speaker, the audience and the moment is what makes a speech great, says former @BarackObama speechwriter @DavidLitt

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Who's “holding the pen”?

The answer, increasingly so during President Obama's time in the White House, was David Litt, a former campaign volunteer who started working in the White House with only minimal experience as a speechwriter. A few years later and he was meeting with the president and tasked with drafting many of his most high-profile statements and addresses.

It's quite a story, and one that Litt expertly captures in his bestselling memoir , which combines laugh out loud humour with deep insight about the art of wordsmithing for a nation's chief executive. Fiercely modest and self-deprecating - both in person and in his book - Litt freely admits that he was somewhat thrown in at the deep end. “My experience in the White House was pretty different to other speechwriting jobs because of the sheer amount of time pressure,” he explains.

“I came in with some experience of writing speeches - not a tonne - in fact, I hadn't had a lot of experience doing anything. I certainly hadn't experienced writing speeches to incredibly tight deadlines under the level of scrutiny that an American president operates by. This was probably the biggest challenge and the area where I had to do the most learning on the job - and I had to do a lot of learning very quickly.”

Why speeches still matter

Leaders around the world have all manner of communications options to choose from. From tweets to YouTube videos, television clips to Snapchat, the landscape in front of them brims with opportunities to promote their message. With this in mind, it seems pertinent to ask whether speeches still matter. Are they as important as in previous generations? Litt is in no doubt.

“I think speeches still matter, and I think they'll continue to matter,” he says firmly. “The difference is that lots of other communication methods matter as well. So whether you're a politician or a CEO or anyone else, you're no longer just picking the message you want to send but also the medium by which you send it. This choice matters a lot more than it used to, especially as there are now so many options to choose from.”

He goes on to say that it is now incumbent on leaders - and their communications team - to know what works best and where. “Something might be ideal as an online video, for example, whereas others would make more sense as a speech or a tweet,” he says. “Knowing how to use different platforms to get your message across is something I think communications teams have to consider in a way that they didn't ten years ago.”

So, in his opinion, what makes for a great speech? Is it down to the oratory - such as President Obama's 2015 speech in Selma - or President Reagan's famous “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day? Or maybe it is down to capturing the moment, such as Bobby Kennedy's iconic speech in response to the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King? Litt says it is down to a mix of different factors.

“Usually it's about the combination of the speaker, the audience and the moment,” he says. “There are definitely rules that can make a speech more effective and there are lots of potential mistakes that can make a speech less effective, but the speaker is only one element of the overall picture.”

Fortunately for Litt and his colleagues in the speechwriting shop, their boss was not only an accomplished writer himself - check out his edits to a Jon Favreau -penned healthcare speech early in his tenure - but also a storyteller par excellence. “Part of our job as speechwriters was to think about how to tell stories,” he recalls. “The stories in the book are obviously very different to what President Obama would have used in his speeches - for the most part - but that skill of storytelling and that experience of storytelling is something I think I have tried to use and take from one arena to another.”

Life inside the real West Wing

Any visitor to Washington, DC - first time or otherwise - normally makes a beeline for the White House at some stage. But you don't get very far. The perimeter, extended since a succession of fence-jumpers in recent years, not to mention the patrolling Secret Service agents, keeps tourists and passers-by from getting too close.

So what is it really like to work there? To be able to flash your security pass and stroll through security checks? To work a matter of feet away from the President of the United States? Litt admits that his time there was the experience of a lifetime, one that has left him with a rich abundance of memories great and small.

“One thing I remember over and over is watching President Obama walk into a room filled not with White House staff but with Americans, whether they were people visiting Washington or if he was on the road,” he says. “To be part of that moment when you know that everyone in the room is never going to forget that experience as long as they live, and to play a tiny part in making that happen, was pretty special.”

He also has some advice gleaned from his time there, useful for any new joiner to an organisation, not just the White House. “Don't try and reinvent the wheel,” he says. “When you're coming into an organisation which already has systems in place and is doing well, the tendency is to try and demonstrate how special you are. But first you need to demonstrate that you can keep pace, and only then do you get the opportunity to add something - that took me a little while to learn.”

He goes on to say that it is vital to know what your job really is, not just what your job title says. “Essentially, you need to know how you can make the lives of the people around you easier, and make sure you keep executing on that. And also, for anyone about to start work in the White House, there is a 30% discount in the cafeteria buffet from 2pm - so make sure you eat a big breakfast.”

“Anything is possible”

Today, Litt can be found working at the online comedy company Funny or Die , particularly appropriate given his skill for humour (among his roles at the White House was “holding the pen” for several of President Obama's speeches to the White House Correspondents' Dinner ).

It is clear, though, that he remains fully engaged in politics and gives the impression of itching to step back into the arena. “Like millions of Americans, the one thing that has been hammered home over the last year is that you never get to take a complete break from being a citizen trying to improve your country,” he points out. “If you don't do it, it's not like someone else can be counted on to step in.”

And while he is clear that he wouldn't want to go back to full-time speechwriting, he has a deep reservoir of knowledge ready to be to be tapped into. So, what tips would he share with anyone looking to follow in his footsteps? “In a purely practical sense, if you can transcribe a conversation and use someone's language verbatim as much as possible, then use that as a building block,” he says.

“In the private sector, this is something I was able to do and it is very useful. I would also say - be absolutely sure what the one big idea is that you want the audience to take away. A lot of speeches seem scattered, and that's because they are scattered. Even impressive, important people don't have a clear idea all the time of the one thing they want the audience to remember.”

And did he, like esteemed American biographer Robert Caro, “know his last line” and write towards it? “Speeches are a little different,” he concludes. “You should know what the headline is for someone writing about the speech - even if that person isn't actually a newspaper reporter. You should always have this in mind.”


  • From Washington to The West Wing. Eli Attie tells us about life as Vice President Gore's chief speechwriter, his subsequent role on The West Wing and the secrets of effective political communication
  • Life in the foxhole: the new rules of the communications game.  Few know how to navigate the terrain of government communications better than Obama White House veteran  Eric Schultz . Speaking to the Gov Actually podcast, he tells us about getting the message out - DC style…
  • Googling better government.  After helping rescue healthcare.gov,  Mikey Dickerson  is now focusing on the US federal government's wider deployment of digital technology. He takes time out to tell Danny Werfel why it's no more business as usual
  • To the Max.   Helping US policymakers to be more effective is the task facing  Max Stier  and his colleagues at the Partnership for Public Service. He tells us about transforming federal government inspiring a new generation
  • Winds of change.   Few understand the mechanics of US elections better than  Matthew Dowd . A veteran of both sides of the campaign trail, he tells us about his experiences and why change is coming to America…
  • Beltway and beyond.   A former senior advisor to two US presidents,  Elliott Abrams'  view on public impact has been shaped by decades of public service. He shares his perspective on how governments can achieve more
  • DC despatch.  Kate Josephs  reflects on her experiences driving performance improvement in the British and US governments

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How to Write a Great Speech, According to the Obamas’ Speechwriter

By Liam Freeman

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It was the summer of 1998, the end of her junior year of college, when Sarah Hurwitz fell in love with the art form of writing the perfect speech, having scored an internship at the White House in Vice President Al Gore’s speechwriting office. “Every day, his staff used words to move, inspire, comfort, and empower people,” she recalls. “I still can’t imagine a better way to spend a career.”

And what an extraordinary career Hurwitz’s has been. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she became the chief speechwriter for Hillary Rodham Clinton on her 2008 presidential campaign. Eventually, she returned to the White House, serving as the head speechwriter for first lady Michelle Obama and as a senior speechwriter for President Barack Obama between 2009 and 2017.

Here, Hurwitz shares 11 nuggets of speechwriting wisdom that she’s garnered along the way so that you can shine at your next public address, whether that be a televised political debate, a work presentation, or a toast at your best friend’s wedding.

1. Channel the person who is speaking

The true art of speechwriting isn’t scripting someone—it’s channeling their voice. My first step when writing a speech for Mrs. Obama would be to sit down with her and ask, “What would you like to say?” She knows who she is, and she always knows what she wants to say. She’s also a naturally gifted speaker and writer, so I’d transcribe as she talked, forming the basis of the first draft.

2. Research and understand your audience

Who are you talking to? What are they concerned about? Why are you speaking to them? How well do they know you? What’s the venue? If Mrs. Obama was speaking at a university, for example, it was important to understand the history and student body of that university. If you’re giving a toast at your best friend’s wedding, you need to know if you can tell a story that’s a bit edgy or if their family will get offended.

3. Know that structure is destiny

If you have a bad structure, you can’t have a good speech. Every paragraph should flow logically from one to the next. When I’m trying to figure out the structure of a speech, I’ll often print it out and cut it up with scissors so I can move parts around. It’s only then that I realize the order is wrong or I see that I’m repeating myself or I notice that certain passages could be combined.

4. Seek multiple opinions  

It’s really important to ask other people to look at your speech—as many as possible, especially if you’re speaking to a community that you don’t know well. You need to find someone from that audience who understands its cultural sensitivities and norms so you speak in a way that inspires people rather than causing offense.

5. Throw the rulebook out of the window

Writing to be read and writing to be heard are two very different skills. Spoken language doesn’t need to conform to grammar and punctuation norms. I often use ellipses instead of commas to indicate pauses because they’re easier to see. It’s fine to space things weirdly on the page or add notations if it helps you—all that matters is how the words sound coming out of your mouth.

With that in mind, you should edit out loud. Don’t just sit looking at your computer screen—print the speech out, practice delivering it, and edit as you go.

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6. Listening is the key to great speaking

There were hundreds of occasions when Mrs. Obama gave me feedback that ultimately influenced how I write. My drafts would be covered in her handwritten edits: “Are the transitions seamless? Is the structure logical? Is this language the most vivid and moving that it can be?” And I would learn from those edits.

As I write, I hear her voice in my head saying things like, “This part is getting bogged down in the weeds,“ “we’re missing the beating heart,” “we’re missing the real human side of this issue.” Hone your ability to identify the weakest parts that aren’t working.

7. Speak like you usually do

It’s fine to ask yourself, “What will make me sound smart or powerful or funny?’”or “What does the audience want to hear?” But your first question should really be, “What is the deepest, most important truth that I can tell at this particular moment?” All too often people focus on how they’re going to say something rather than on what they’re actually going to say.

Then, when they give a speech, they often take on an overly formal and stiff giving-a-speech voice or they slip into their professional jargon and use words that no one understands. If something feels unnatural or awkward when you say it, go back and rewrite it until it sounds like you.

8. Show, don’t tell

This may sound like a basic writing tip, but it’s rare that people execute this well. If you’re bored during a speech, it’s probably because the person is telling not showing. Mrs. Obama didn’t start her 2016 Democratic National Convention speech by saying: “On my daughter’s first day of school at the White House, I was nervous, afraid, and anxious.” She said: “I will never forget that winter morning as I watched our girls, just 7 and 10 years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns. And I saw their little faces pressed up against the window, and the only thing I could think was, What have we done?” It’s such a searing image. Anytime you find yourself using a lot of adjectives, stop, step back, and think about painting a picture for people instead.

9. Don’t let technology get in the way

We’re living in the age of Zoom, and many people are delivering speeches virtually, which creates a whole new set of challenges. The audience often has their cameras turned off, or even if they’re on, there’s a disconnect. For this reason, I’d advise against a lecture-style format on Zoom. Instead, opt for interview style—give your host a set of questions to ask you so you can convey your message. This back-and-forth is more engaging via video calls.

10. Watch the clock

People are distracted today and have limited bandwidth to listen to what you are saying, so it’s really important to focus your message. Do you want them to feel reassured, courageous, fired up? Whatever the emotion, really think about that as you’re writing your speech. As for the length, it depends on your venue. If you’re doing a toast at your best friend’s wedding, keep it to five minutes (it’s not your wedding!), and for a keynote speech, no longer than 20 minutes.

11. Consider the format

Unless you have an incredible memory, don’t put yourself under added pressure by trying to learn your speech by heart. That said, what you read from matters. Some speakers are most comfortable with their speech when it’s written out verbatim. For others, reading a speech word for word feels awkward. Try experimenting with different formats, such as bullet points or cue cards. If you’re printing your remarks out on paper, keep the text on the top two-thirds of the page—otherwise, as you get to the bottom of the page, you’ll have to bend your neck to look down, and you’ll end up swallowing your words and breaking eye contact with your audience.  *Sarah Hurwitz ’s debut book, Here All Along (Penguin Random House), is out now.

Jon Favreau, President Obama’s head speechwriter, is departing

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WASHINGTON — Jon Favreau’s career took off when, at age 23, he interrupted U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama during a speech rehearsal to offer some suggestions for improvement.

That cheeky move led to a seven-year tour as Obama’s lead speechwriter, an assignment that ends March 1 as Favreau considers trying his hand at another form of drama — as a screenwriter, perhaps in Los Angeles.

The departure subtracts a vivid personality from the president’s operation, defined since the beginning by Obama’s spoken words and the team that wrote them.

After Favreau landed in the White House four years ago, he became the most recognizable in a coterie of young staffers. Sporting aviator sunglasses and a buzz cut, he occasionally lit up social media with his antics.

PHOTOS: President Obama’s past

People magazine named him one of the world’s most beautiful people. He went out with actress Rashida Jones, best known for her role in “The Office.” One night, as he and some friends played a shirtless game of beer pong in Georgetown, someone snapped a photo that ended up on the blog FamousDC, with the headline: “White House Gone Wild.”

But about the writing, Favreau was always serious, telling peers it was a solemn responsibility to remain in sync with the president’s thinking.

“When they’re working together, it’s like watching two musicians riff,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s longtime advisor. “Jon’s stamp is on all of the great speeches, from 2005 until now.”

Favreau will turn over his seat to Cody Keenan, a Chicago native who is taking the lead on writing the State of the Union address. Keenan is an original member of the team of twentysomethings that Favreau assembled for a tough assignment: writing for a writer with exacting standards.

Favreau declined Monday to discuss his departure.

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In a statement, Obama said, “He has become a friend and a collaborator on virtually every major speech I’ve given in the Senate, on the campaign trail and in the White House.”

They didn’t start off as collaborators. Obama was an Illinois state senator running for the U.S. Senate when they met in 2004. He was preparing to deliver the Democratic National Convention speech that would launch his national career. Favreau was working as a junior speechwriter for the party’s presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who is from Favreau’s home state.

Kerry’s staff had spotted an overlap between Obama’s speech and the one their boss planned to deliver, and they sent Favreau to tell Obama to trim his text.

“It was an unbelievably cruel thing to do, to send the 23-year-old in to do that job,” Axelrod joked.

After Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate, he hired Favreau. Favreau then moved to Obama’s 2008 campaign and into the White House, where he earned a reputation as someone who could write speeches and parry with senior officials and Cabinet secretaries who wanted to put their fingerprints on the work.

If there were any doubts about him, Favreau quickly dispelled them when he wrote the first inaugural address and the president’s healthcare speech to Congress, said David Plouffe, a longtime Obama advisor.

PHOTOS: President Obama’s second inauguration

“Jon wasn’t going to come in with a draft that was not Barack Obama-like,” Plouffe said. “The president never has to worry that he’s going to get something and have to say, ‘This isn’t my voice.’”

Keenan is known for his handling of heartbreak and sadness. He was the lead writer on Obama’s speech at the Tucson memorial after the shooting of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

Favreau plans to stay in Washington for a while, but he has often told friends that he wants to pursue screenwriting, as did former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett, the co-creator of the new comedy “1600 Penn.”

His time in the White House should serve Favreau well, Plouffe said.

“He can write comedy, history, drama, suspense,” he said. “He’s got the whole range.”

[email protected]

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"Writing history: HC grad heads Obama speechwriting team"

obama speechwriting team

Telegram & Gazette

Jon Favreau, a member of the College of the Holy Cross class of 2003 and President Obama’s chief speechwriter, is profiled in the Telegram & Gazette .   In the feature story, the 30-year-old reflected on his time at Holy Cross and how it helped him get to the White House. The reporter writes, “it wasn’t until college that he really got his start in public service, first volunteering in Worcester and then participating in a Washington program during his junior year, which marked his entry into politics.” 

  • Read the Telegram & Gazette article. This “Holy Cross in the News” item by Cristal Steuer.

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What Obama's 27-Year-Old Speechwriter Learned From George W. Bush

Headshot of Mark Warren

On the night of the New Hampshire primary in January, a young man of twenty-six stood at the back of the crowd in the Nashua High gym and watched his boss deliver a speech conceding defeat to Hillary Clinton in the day's election. And even though his boss, Barack Obama, had lost, Jon Favreau couldn't help but smile. Obama had won big in Iowa just five days before, sending the Clinton campaign into a death spiral, but Hillary's surprising comeback meant that any notions of putting her away quickly were now dispelled. This would be a long, bloody fight for the nomination. Yet they all smiled. Had there ever been a more triumphal concession speech, ever?

And then the senator got to the emotional heart of the speech, the part when he recognized that nothing this big is easy. "For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told we're not ready or that we shouldn't try or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can...."

Speeches claiming victory are never as interesting as those conceding defeat, because people are never more interesting than when they lose. In any case, neither Favreau nor his cowriters Adam Frankel and Ben Rhodes had been expecting to have to concede anything that evening. But things change quickly. After consulting with Obama for about half an hour -- Obama talked, Favreau typed notes -- they decided to reprise the hopeful refrain of "Yes, we can...." which had been the slogan of Obama's 2004 senate race in Illinois. And at that moment, a mere presidential campaign was transformed into a movement, coalesced around three simple words.

He is too busy to read much. "I'm embarrassed to say that since college" -- Favreau graduated from Holy Cross in 2003 -- "I've been so busy speechwriting for Kerry and then Barack that I haven't been reading all the good literary stuff I used to read back in the day." As for speechcraft, while he says the speeches of Bobby Kennedy are his favorites, he also says Peggy Noonan is his all-time favorite speechwriter. He cites Ronald Reagan's Pointe du Hoc speech marking the fortieth anniversary of D-day as his favorite of hers, and in Noonan's sugary epic, you can hear the faint echo of Barack Obama talking about his grandfather.

Favreau also says he has greatly admired the writing of Michael Gerson, who was President Bush's main speechwriter for five years, especially his address to the joint session of Congress after the September 11 attacks. Gerson returns the admiration. One night in New Hampshire, he sought out Favreau at a campaign rally and introduced himself to talk shop.

And Favreau is right, Gerson's speech for Bush that September 20 was one of the great speeches in American history. But it must be noted here that with that speech the discord between speech and speaker has never been more pronounced, for we have come to know that Gerson's boss never fully grasped the power of words. With an exalting script, Gerson could make George W. Bush sound like Winston Churchill for an hour. But it is Jon Favreau's task and his gift that he is able to make his boss -- a fellow who has been known to write a sentence or two on his own -- sound like Barack Obama.

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The writer behind the speeches

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Sarah Hurwitz, former White House wordsmith, says the best remarks echo the person delivering them

Few people who decide to become writers expect fame to follow. All that most writers hope for is that the work is good, maybe even important, and that people pay attention to it.

Over the last decade, Sarah Hurwitz ’99, J.D. ’04, has managed that and more as a speechwriter for one of the nation’s most gifted orators, Barack Obama, and two of the world’s most commanding and admired women, Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Hurwitz had been a largely under-the-radar figure outside of Washington, D.C., traveling the world crafting keynote addresses, convention speeches, and remarks for campaign rallies, commencements, and other major events — until last summer.

That’s when the first lady wowed the Democratic National Convention (DNC). In July, she made the case for Clinton in what many called a historic speech referencing living in the White House (“Today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves”), and followed that with an emotional, moving speech in October rebuking Donald Trump’s videotaped remarks about groping women (“It has shaken me to my core … The shameful comments about our bodies, the disrespect of our ambitions and intellect”). Melania Trump’s unexpected partial resurrection during the Republican National Convention of Michelle Obama’s memorable 2008 DNC speech also brought Hurwitz some additional, if awkward, notice.

While not ready to comment publicly on that episode, Hurwitz, a spring fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School ’s Institute of Politics (IOP), said she understands the former first lady’s broad appeal and influence, attributing it in part to an unshakeable sense of who she is and an unwillingness to compromise her core beliefs and values.

“Mrs. Obama is … a fundamentally authentic, honest person. She doesn’t say something unless she truly believes it, and people respond to that,” said Hurwitz from her IOP office.

Long passionate about politics, Hurwitz wasn’t entirely sure what path to take while she was a social sciences concentrator living in Quincy House.

“I knew I wanted to work in politics somehow, but I had no idea where,” she said. “It’s hard to know what these jobs actually entail when you’re just a student.”

While still at the College, Hurwitz interned in Vice President Al Gore’s speechwriting office, and staffers there helped her land a job after graduation as a speechwriting research assistant for Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, then lieutenant governor of Maryland. Not long after, influential U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa brought her on as his speechwriter.

“Writing for Harkin — I just didn’t really know how to write a speech. I was sort of freelancing, just doing my best. But by the end of the year, I think they were really happy that I decided to go to law school,” Hurwitz joked.

At Harvard Law School , she teamed up with classmate Josh Gottheimer to do some speechwriting on the side. Gottheimer, now a New Jersey congressman, was the more seasoned of the two, having written for President Bill Clinton.

“He really helped me understand what makes a good speech,” said Hurwitz. “He really taught me the art of writing to be heard, as opposed to read, which I don’t think I quite understood.”

As his deputy, Hurwitz wrote for Gen. Wesley Clark, running in the 2004 Democratic primary, but moved on to U.S. Sen. John Kerry’s campaign after Clark dropped out. When Hillary Clinton jumped into the 2008 presidential race, Hurwitz served as her chief speechwriter, and would go on to craft her memorable concession to Barack Obama, an address that vividly captured the milestone political moment. Just days later, as Hurwitz was still reeling from that disappointment, Obama’s chief speechwriter Jon Favreau, whom she knew from the Kerry campaign, offered her a job.

“I was so incredibly proud to work for Hillary. I love her. She’s been one of my heroes since I was a kid. But I also came to really respect and admire Obama, and so when she conceded I was really thrilled to be able to go work for him.”

Hurwitz joined Obama’s speechwriting team at the White House, but soon found herself frequently pitching in when Michelle Obama needed remarks prepared. The two had hit it off during the 2008 Democratic convention, and soon it became clear that a permanent shift to the East Wing was in order.

Unlike President Obama, who famously liked to put down his ideas on yellow legal pads and offer edits and do rewrites until the last minute, the writing process with the first lady was a methodical collaboration.

“The speech always starts with her — sitting down with her and having her articulate what she wants to say, how she wants to say it, what her tone will be, what her message will be,” said Hurwitz. “That’s the heart of the speech.”

Channeling someone else’s voice in a genuine way, with the natural cadence, tone, and phrasing, is among the job’s hardest tasks, and one that requires lots of face time, “You really want to have that in your head as you write,” Hurwitz said.

From there, Hurwitz would research and prepare a draft to be shared with White House colleagues from various departments — policy, legal, and communications — for input until it was ready to send to Michelle Obama for “a real back and forth” on the final text, “so when she steps up to the podium, those are her words.”

While polish and poetry are always nice to have, the best speechwriting is simply honest.

“I think a great speech is something that says something profoundly true, period. So often, people ask the wrong questions when they’re thinking about delivering a speech. They ask, ‘What will make me sound smart,’ ‘What will make me sound powerful,’ ‘What will make me sound funny,’ ‘What will make the audience like me?’” she said.

Those aren’t bad questions, but they’re not the most important. “You have to ask … ‘What is the most deeply true thing I can say at this moment?’ Truth has a way of breaking through, it has a way of reaching people that fake-sounding slogans and sound-bites really don’t. Even if they’re clever, even if they’re witty, they don’t have the same weight and import.”

Hurwitz admires the work of Ted Sorensen, President John F. Kennedy’s celebrated speechwriter and adviser; her Obama administration colleagues, especially Favreau (“incredibly gifted”); and Conan O’Brien’s 2000 Class Day speech at Harvard. She cites writers Michael Gerson, Matthew Scully, David Frum, and John McConnell for their work on President George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration speech (“a beautiful, beautiful statement of American values”) and his address to Congress after 9/11 (an “incredibly powerful, incredibly moving speech”).

Currently leading an IOP study group at Harvard Kennedy School , Hurwitz hopes to emphasize for students that taking a gamble and falling flat are essential chapters in a political life.

“I want them to understand that success in politics is not about a well-ordered, linear series of successes … Nobody succeeds in politics that way,” she said.

“People succeed in politics by taking risks, having failures, recovering from those failures, working really, really hard, being a good person, helping others and, over the years, collecting a real community of people … who will help you out when you’re struggling, and people you need to help out when they’re struggling,” Hurwitz said.

“Harvard students need to understand it’s OK to fail. That’s really a sign that you’re challenging yourself and growing.”

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One voice can change the world .

We're a different kind of speechwriting and strategic communications firm with some of the highest-caliber writing talent on the planet. We help clients find their voice and use it to change the world. Let's work together.

Fenway was founded in 2013 by President Barack Obama's former chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau and national security spokesman, Tommy Vietor.

Since then, our team has grown — but we're still a small shop. Every writer on our staff is a pressure-tested thought leader in their own right. We’ve worked alongside U.S. presidents and first ladies, governors, senators, and presidential candidates. We’ve written books on The New York Times Bestseller list, developed messaging plans for companies and nonprofits that are reshaping the world, and worked side-by-side with athletes, musicians, actors, and other public figures.

The Fenway model is based on collaboration. Our varied perspectives are brought to bear on every project we do, which is why our work makes headline news, trends on Twitter, and inspires the kind of action that leads to lasting change. We’re lucky to be able to be selective about our clients. If we take on your project, you can trust we believe in its power to change the world.

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Whether you’re speaking to the United Nations, preparing a TED Talk, or delivering a commencement address, our approach is hands-on, personal, and collaborative. We’ll conduct the research that brings a speech to life, and draft and revise remarks until you're thrilled with the final product. We’ll work at whatever pace works for you — whether you need time to home in on your big idea or have to respond to a breaking story in a matter of hours. We’ve been there. And we do this work so our clients know — no matter where they are — we’ll be there for them too.

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For better or worse (hint: for worse), we’ve learned a tweet has the power to change the world. So does an op-ed or a blog post — as long as it’s, well, different than all of the other op-eds and blog posts out there. With more content available today than ever before, you need to do much more to stand out; and you need to make every word count, whether it’s on the Editorial page of the New York Times or on the Twitter feeds of their reporters.

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Writing a book is hard. So we only work on ones we believe will live on bookshelves, and in readers’ minds, forever. But if you have a vision for a landmark book, we’d love to hear it. Our team of experienced writers can guide you through every step of the process, from preparing a proposal to writing and editing your draft, to creating the remarks and talking points you use at readings, and in interviews, once your book is a success.

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We conduct an extensive audit of your communications, then work with you to identify the core of your message, sharpen and simplify your story, and instill the discipline to ensure it's consistently communicated at every level of your organization. We've helped develop and write narratives for Fortune 100 companies, tech start-ups that are actually making the world a better place, and some of the most impactful nonprofits on the planet.

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We’ll help you go in front of any crowd with the confidence to impress, inspire, and make your message stick. Our training sessions go beyond well-known tips and tactics to focus on the actual content of what you want to communicate. We help you improve speech delivery by improving the speech itself. We've prepared presidents, cabinet officials, ambassadors, and CEOs for their public appearances.

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  • Fenway is not your typical agency . We’re an expert team of seasoned, pressure-tested thinkers and writers who work fast, have your back, and give you our absolute best. For better or worse, we are the types who brainstorm taglines in the shower tinker with outlines at 2:00am. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, but our craft is a different story.
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  • We’re picky selective about the projects we take on. We only work with clients whose ideas we believe in and whose work makes us proud. So before we start, we like to get to know you. That means sitting down together (remotely, for now) and digging into what you’re all about — and why the world needs to hear from you.
  • Then we’re off to the races. We start learning everything about you. We discuss ideas with you and with our team. We open up a document and stare at the blank cursor, find the sharpest, most compelling way to tell your story. Finally, we make sure it feels right to you, incorporating your feedback until you’re thrilled with the end result. And we’re there for you whenever you need us .

We wouldn't be speechwriters if we didn't end on a call to action. We're always looking for incredible writers to join our team — reach out if that's you.

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Writing the State of the Union

President Obama's speech was likely finished days ago.

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Charlie Archambault for USN&WR

President Barack Obama delivers his speech to a joint session of Congress during The State of the Union address, at the Capitol building in Washington, DC, on January 27, 2010.

Cody Keenan, President Obama's incoming chief speechwriter, is getting some well deserved attention this week as tonight's State of the Union is his first gig as top pen in the president's proverbial desk. Who helps the president write his speech is a big deal, especially in the modern communications age. But even as the president's speechwriters have come out from behind the curtain, there remain some misconceptions about the role they play and how a speech like the State of the Union gets produced.

"There's a myth of the White House speechwriter that somehow or another we're the ones who go into a room and come out with this fully formed text," former Clinton chief speechwriter Don Baer said at a Bipartisan Policy Center panel this morning on how these speeches get written. "It's kind of the Ted Sorensen-ian kind of myth." Of course in the case of Sorensen, President Kennedy's chief domestic aide and speechwriter, it wasn't a myth. That was when the White House staff was much smaller and less specialized. As I detail in White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters , Ted could huddle up with Kennedy and then go off and write a major speech because of his role as JFK's closest aide—there was much less of a clearance process.

[ Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama. ]

That was then. In the last 30 or so years, as the executive branch bureaucracy has grown, so too has the number of people involved in the speechwriting process, especially on a major speech like the State of the Union address. In turn that means the job of someone like Keenan and the other writers on his staff are more than presidential collaborators. They also need to be skilled bureaucratic infighters.

Writing a State of the Union address, Baer said, it's the "largest most massive group process that you've ever engaged in." Tonight's speech is, he said, "both a mission statement and a setting out an agenda for an entire presidency and an entire government at least for the year ahead and sometimes more than that," so there's a lot of ground to cover. It's the president's opportunity not only to make his case to the nation but to outline a path for a sometimes intransigent bureaucracy to follow. That's part of the reason why, as I mentioned earlier today , these speeches are inescapably laundry lists.

[ See pictures of Obama 2012 State of the Union Address ]

And it's why modern speechwriters have to be something more than rhetorical artisans. The good ones have to know how to guide a speech through an often-harrowing process. If history is any indication, the Obama speechwriting team started on this process months ago and has been fielding a host of policy proposals and other suggestions for weeks now. "The real challenge in working on the State of the Union," former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol, appearing on the same Bipartisan Policy Center panel, recalled this morning, "is that you're not just working with the president, you're working with everybody." That "everybody" in this case includes not only White House staff but Cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, you name it. "They may not be able to get the president on the phone in the Oval Office, but they can probably track down the speechwriters," Shesol added. "And so they will find you wherever you are."

He added that "the writing is often the least difficulty piece of it. Writing the little block of text about education, writing the applause lines—these are things you know how to do as speechwriter. The challenge is to try to impose some order on this—to bring order out of chaos."

The final editing of course goes to the president. And especially on a speech like this the denizens of the Oval Office tend to have active red pens (or black markers as is often the case). Shesol recalled that Clinton—wary of complaints that his speeches were too long—would tally the number of words he had edited out at the bottom of each page. Then he'd put scads more words in during the next rehearsal.

[ Photos: Bill Clinton Rouses Crowd at Democratic National Convention ]

When that process ends depends on the president. According to Adam Frankel, a first term Obama speechwriter who was appearing on the same panel, tonight's speech has likely been more or less set for a couple days now. "With President Obama, by this time the speech is just about locked," he said. "If there are tweaks that may be made they're going to be fairly minor at this stage … There's as little last minute tinkering as possible."

In this regard he's like George W. Bush, who hated last minute tweaks. He would rehearse the speech in the days leading up to the big event, speechwriter John McConnell recalled this morning on the same panel, and by the last session he would sternly let his audience of aides know that this would not be an editing session. It was only a practice session—no more changes.

Clinton famously never stopped editing his speeches, right up until delivery, when he would extemporize right on through. Baer said that the "concept of going home the night before the State of the Union" was not one he was familiar with. He also shared that he would slip into the bathroom next to his West Wing basement office in the early morning hours of the big day and vomit from nerves. "You're investing a lot of yourself in the speech," he cracked, "and I was investing something in the men's toilet."

I hope for Cody Keenan's sake it's not a practice he's picked up.

  • Read Annke Green: Obama Ignores His Own Sequestration History
  • Read Robert Schlesinger: On Drones, It's Not Obama to Be Worried About—It's the Next Guy
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly , now available on iPad.

Tags: Barack Obama , Bill Clinton , George W. Bush , State of the Union

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Cody Keenan: How I wrote Barack Obama’s speeches

. . .which he then rewrote. the ex-president’s speechwriter reveals their collaborative art.

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US president Barack Obama addressing members of the public at Gollege Green, Dublin, during a ceremony as part of his visit to Ireland in May 2011. Photograph: Alan Betson

My family left Ireland for America seven generations ago. To the best of our knowledge, Patrick Keenan left Cork sometime in the 1770s. He was counted in the first American census. His son, Peter Keenan, was born in America. On my mother’s side, John McThomas left Dublin around the same time, fought for America in the Revolution, and was buried in a national cemetery in Ohio.

As far as I know, I was the first in my family, on either side, to return. My first visit was with my best friend back in 2005. We were broke, relied on the kindness of strangers and camped wherever we could – a town park in Kinsale, a beach outside Galway, a farm in Dingle.

My second visit, in May 2011, was a bit different. Surely, it was something my ancestors could not imagine. I flew over in a highly modified 747, crossing the sea they had sailed, with the first black president of a country they helped settle. Hundreds of people were lined up along Moneygall village’s main street, waving Irish and American flags.

Barack Obama is two generations closer to Ireland than I am. And I know people have a laugh at how Moneygall has made the most of that relationship. But it is not a relationship that should be discounted.

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Much has been made of his Kenyan ancestry. But remember, he only met his father twice. He was raised by his white mother and white grandparents. That side of his family is one he holds just as dear. Moneygall’s favourite great-great-great-grandson really does have a soft spot for Ireland and its people. He revealed as much in his address to the people of Ireland that day, delivered to a throng that had gathered along Dublin’s College Green:

It was remarkable to see the small town where a young shoemaker named Falmouth Kearney, my great-great-great-grandfather, lived his early life. He left during the Great Hunger, as so many Irish did, to seek a new life in the New World. He travelled by ship to New York, where he entered himself into the records as a 'labourer'. He married an American girl from Ohio. They settled in the Midwest. They started a family.

It’s a familiar story, one lived and cherished by Americans of all backgrounds. It’s integral to our national identity. It’s who we are – a nation of immigrants from all over the world…

We call it the American Dream. It is the dream that drew Falmouth Kearney to America from a small village in Ireland. It is the dream that drew my own father to America from a small village in Africa. It is a dream that we have carried forward, sometimes through stormy waters, sometimes at great cost, for more than two centuries.

It’s not something he would have imagined when he was a young Chicago politician, bringing up the rear of the St Patrick’s Day parade, followed only by the sanitation workers picking up the pieces. It is not something that, for my first 26 years or so, I could have imagined, either.

Growing up, I had always taken a keen interest in politics, because my parents argued about it on a regular basis – but I began university with plans of becoming a surgeon. Chemistry class altered those plans pretty quickly. I dedicated myself instead to political science, and after graduation, I moved to Washington DC.

obama speechwriting team

Cody Keenan, who served as director of speechwriting for President Barack Obama. ‘In less than 10 years, I went from mailroom intern in Congress to chief speechwriter in the White House,’ he says. Photograph: Lawrence Jackson/The White House

After a dozen failed interviews, I finally became one of 100 interns under someone for whom I will always be grateful: John F Kennedy’s kid brother, Ted. It remains my best political learning experience.

I was at the Democratic Convention in 2004 when a young state senator from Illinois introduced himself to the country. I must have talked about that speech a lot, because that is when I got my shot. One day, my overworked boss poked his head around the corner and asked, “hey, can you write a speech?”

I had never considered speechwriting. But I lied and said yes. I stayed up all night panicking my way through it. That one led to a few more. And eventually, a colleague connected me with senator Obama's chief speechwriter Jon Favreau. We hit it off, and I became an intern all over again, this time in Chicago, on an upstart presidential campaign; this time the only intern.

And as our poll numbers rose, and our crowds grew, so did my opportunities to write. We won and went to the White House. I moved into a West Wing office with Jon. And I never stopped working my tail off so that when he left, and Obama had to choose a new chief speechwriter, I was the only choice to take his place.

In less than 10 years, I went from mailroom intern in Congress to chief speechwriter in the White House.

What goes into a good speech? Well, the first thing I can tell you is that there’s no alchemy to it; no magic formula. It’s more art than science, and after 3,577 speeches in the White House, I admit a lot of it is not art, either. I have been fortunate, though, to work for someone who views it as a craft; as a way to organise his thoughts into a coherent argument and present them to the world. He takes it seriously. He was anonymous when he walked into that Boston hall in 2004, and a political rock star when he walked out. That is what a speech can do.

To this day, by the way, he reminds me that he wrote that one by himself. All the time.

He’s a frighteningly good writer, which makes my job both harder and easier. Harder because I will stay up all night to get him a draft he will be happy with. Easier because if I do not hit the mark, he is there to back me up. And when it came to any speech of consequence, President Obama was actively involved in the product. We would often begin the process for big speeches by sitting down with him in the Oval Office. We called it “The Download”. He would walk us through what was on his mind, what he wanted to say, and we would type as fast as possible.

He would always begin with the question, “what story are we trying to tell?”

Once we got his download, we would get to work, and get him a draft. He would often work on it himself until well past midnight. And this may sound counter-intuitive, but it was always a good thing to hear that he had a lot of edits. It did not mean he disliked what we put down. It meant we gave him what he needed to do the job.

When I was drafting the Charleston eulogy, for example – the speech in which he sang Amazing Grace – I stayed up for three days straight trying to make it perfect. I handed the draft to him the afternoon before the speech and went home to sleep. Right before I turned in, I got an email from him asking me to come back and meet him at 11 o’clock that night.

He told me he liked the first two pages. But he had rewritten the next two pages in just a few hours. It was annoying. Still, I apologised for what I saw as letting him down. But he stopped me and said, “Brother, we are collaborators. You gave me what I needed. The muse hit. And when you have been thinking about this stuff for 40 years, you will know what you want to say, too.”

Jon was good at building the big case and laying out the big argument. That was not my strength. I went for people’s guts. I wanted to build moral and emotional cases. I wanted to make people feel something. A sense of connection. A sense of belonging. A sense of being heard. That’s a pretty important part of storytelling.

And I think the best story we ever told came in a 2015 speech in Selma, Alabama.

In 1965, a group of mostly black Americans set out to march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery to demand their right to vote. They barely made it across the town bridge before their non-violent protest was met with violent resistance. The images shocked the conscience of the country and pushed President Johnson to call for a Voting Rights Act.

The idea that just 50 years later, a black president would return to commemorate what they did was extraordinary enough. We could have gone with a safe, simple speech commemorating the anniversary. People would have understood the symbolism. It would have been enough.

obama speechwriting team

US president Barack Obama walks alongside Amelia Boynton Robinson (second right), one of the original marchers; first lady Michelle Obama; and US Representative John Lewis (second left), Democrat of Georgia, and also one of the original marchers, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches on March 7th, 2015. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

But the week before, a Republican politician went on television and said this: “I know this is a terrible thing to say . . . ” By the way, if you begin a thought that way, you don’t have to finish it. Free advice. But he continued, “I do not believe that the President loves America . . . He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up, through love of this country.”

I was pissed about it. It was more dog whistle nonsense designed to delegitimise the first African American president – and, I might add, the first president to win more than 51 per cent of the vote twice since Dwight Eisenhower almost 60 years earlier.

“No Drama Obama”, true to form, was not ruffled. He thought it was a comment that merited no response. He did, however, think it was an idea worth taking on. Who gets to decide what it means to love America? Who gets to decide who belongs and who does not? Who gets to decide what patriotism is all about? And we came up with the thesis of that speech:

What could be more American than what happened in this place? What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people, the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many, coming together to shape their country’s course?

What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?

The rest of that half hour made up my favourite speech. It was our purest collaboration. At one point, I made a joke that our story is too often told, in political speeches at least, as if the Founding Fathers set everything up, some Irish and Italians came over, we beat the Nazis, and here we are. But there is more to our story than that. This felt more complete, more honest. He said well, let’s include some characters from our story. “Go come up with some America.”

I grabbed my speechwriters, and we came up with: “Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, and entrepreneurs and hucksters. Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Susan B Anthony, women who could do as much as any man and then some.” We made it a big open casting call:

Immigrants and Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. Slaves and ranch hands and cowboys and labourers and organisers.

The GIs who liberated a continent and the Tuskeegee Airmen, and Navajo code-talkers, and the Japanese Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied. The firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11. The volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. The gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down that bridge.

The inventors of gospel and jazz and blues, bluegrass and country, and hip-hop and rock and roll, all our very own sound with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.

That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing. We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes.

If there is one Obama speech I could make people watch, that is it. It was the best, most joyous distillation of the way he sees what this country is and can be. It was the idea that through the hard work of self-government, generations of Americans, often young Americans, often without power or title, often at great risk to themselves, have looked upon our flaws and worked to widen the circle of our founding ideals until they include everybody, and not just some.

That is how I see politics. This collective endeavour; the balance between the realism to see the world as it is, and the idealism to fight for the world as it should be anyway.

It was the exhausting, fulfilling work of those 2,922 days in the White House that gave my career meaning. But when I feel the tugging temptation of cynicism, I reach for my proof point that this whole messy endeavour of democracy can work: the 10 most hopeful days I ever saw in politics.

They began in the darkest way imaginable – a mass shooting in the basement of a Charleston church. A black church. It threatened to reopen the kinds of wounds and spark the kinds of recrimination we saw more recently in Charlottesville. But it did not unfold that way. The families of the victims forgave their killer in court. Then, there was a public recognition of the pain that the Confederate flag stirs in so many citizens, and actual introspection and self-examination that we too rarely see in public life, to the point where that flag finally came down from the South Carolina state capitol.

At the same time, it was a week when the supreme court could rule on any case, at any time, with no heads up. So while we worked on the president’s eulogy for Charleston, we were busy drafting several other statements in case he had to speak quickly.

Thursday morning, boom: Obamacare was upheld as constitutional for the second time. Obama spoke. Friday morning, boom: marriage equality becomes a reality in America. Obama spoke. An hour later, we boarded Marine One to fly to Air Force One, which would ferry us to Charleston.

I was still working in his changes to the eulogy for that afternoon. He had added the lyrics to Amazing Grace overnight. And just before he stepped off the helicopter, he turned and said, “you know, if it feels right, I might sing it”. Exhausted, I simply said “okay”. And that night, we returned to a White House that was no longer white – but bathed in the colours of the rainbow. We wrote 10 speeches in those 10 days – plus a few that never had to see the light of day.

Those 10 days were on my mind as I added these words to President Obama’s farewell address:

Ultimately, that's what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there's an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you're tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life. If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organising. If you're disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Persevere. Sometimes you'll win. Sometimes you'll lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in others can be a risk, and there will be times when the process disappoints you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energise and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America – and in Americans – will be confirmed.

– Cody Keenan is a speechwriter who has worked with former US president Barack Obama for more than a decade. From Whence I Came – The Kennedy Legacy, Ireland and America, is edited by Brian Murphy & Donnacha Ó Beacháin. It is published by Merrion Press and dedicated to the memory of former Irish Times columnist Noel Whelan, 1968-2019

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Alumnus Recalls Five Years of Speechwriting in Obama’s White House

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Kyle O’Connor discusses speech details with Obama as the president exits Marine One. (Photo by Pete Souza, Chief White House Photographer)

As one of the youngest White House speechwriters on record, Kyle O’Connor earned a rare view of history in the making. The University of Virginia alumnus joined Barack Obama’s presidential campaign shortly after graduating in 2008 and followed the president to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

O’Connor stayed with the Obama administration for five years, steadily rising up the ranks of the speechwriting team and building his communications credentials in the fast-paced environment of the White House. He learned to capture the president’s unique voice, sometimes working with Obama directly to discuss important remarks.

O’Connor served on President Obama’s speechwriting team for 5 ½ years. (Photo by Pete Souza, Chief White House Photographer)

O’Connor served on President Obama’s speechwriting team for 5 ½ years. (Photo by Pete Souza, Chief White House Photographer)

Now the executive communications manager at Facebook, O’Connor has fond memories of the days he spent cutting his teeth in the West Wing. In the last days of the Obama administration, UVA Today caught up with him to reflect on his experience.

Q. How did you land your job at the White House?

A. When I was at UVA, I spent a couple of summers interning at a political consulting firm in D.C. called Squier, Knapp and Dunn. Then when I was about to graduate, it looked like Barack Obama was going to get the Democratic nomination and one of the partners at the firm where I used to work, Anita Dunn, was on the Obama campaign.

I bugged her every two weeks in the spring and she finally gave in and connected me with an internship on the speechwriting team at the Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago in 2008. I started there about a month after I graduated.

When Obama won, I told the speechwriting team that I’d love to continue working with them, but they were getting a lot of requests at that point so I wasn’t sure if it would work out. Eventually they had barely enough money to bring me on as the research assistant on the speechwriting team at the White House.

I started the week after Obama was inaugurated and worked there for 5½ years. I would do research for all the speeches, and then they started giving me little things on the side. For example, if a sports team came to the White House, I would write something for the president to say to them. Or if he recorded a video, I would write the script. Little by little, I got bigger assignments, and when people left the White House from that team, I got promoted a couple of times and eventually ended up as the deputy director of speechwriting.

Q. How did your experience at UVA prepare you to be a speechwriter for the president?

A. I loved politics at UVA and I took a bunch of political classes, including a “Campaigns and Elections” seminar with Larry Sabato. It was amazing because it was a really small group of people who were all pretty interested in politics and we learned a lot about the real nuts and bolts of how a campaign worked. Sabato took us through polling and messaging and how to run a campaign.

I also think one of the most useful things for me was that I was a sports writer for the Cavalier Daily. I had a column at one point and that was helpful in terms of learning how to write speeches, because you had to make an argument in the span of a few hundred words in a column and make it good and interesting. Sometimes I was covering a game that hadn’t been all that exciting on the surface and I had to make it into a good concise article. That could be tough, but it was a great training ground for writing speeches.

Q. What was one of your most memorable moments working at the White House?

A. I always loved writing speeches for the president that only he could give, and I think those are the speeches that end up being the best for anybody, whether you’re a politician or not.

I wrote the commencement address that he gave at Morehouse College, which is an all-male, historically black college outside of Atlanta. I’m not African-American, but as we were preparing for that, it was interesting to hear what he wanted to say to young men who were much like he was at that age. I remember we talked about that speech and at one point he said, “I know some of the things that I’m going to say you might be uncomfortable writing, but just remember that I’m the one giving the speech, not you.” That was helpful.

Then I got to go with him and hear the speech. I saw the reaction that the students had to hearing the first black president speak to them on their graduation day and say some things that only he could say. It was pretty special. I’ll never forget that one.

Q. What were some of the biggest challenges in your position?

A. It was a relentless pace. When anything happens in the world that’s at a certain level of importance, then the president is expected to comment on it. Everything intersects with the work that you do and so just having to be constantly on call was pretty tough. I used to write statements when people died and the president had to make a statement about it, and that can happen any time day or night, so I was often on call for that.

I didn’t do many foreign policy speeches, but the little foreign policy work I did was really difficult. Every word that the president says can be interpreted different ways around the world and you have to make absolutely sure that the language you’re using is the message that you want to convey. It’s more delicate than it is when you’re only speaking to an American audience.

Q. What advice would you give to current UVA students interested in similar work?

A. Don’t try and plan things down to too much detail. If I had graduated a year earlier, I probably wouldn’t have been able to work on the campaign without being paid and if I had graduated a year later, I probably would have missed the boat on getting a job in the White House. Luck plays a big role in it.

Be open to opportunities and willing to do anything, whether it’s writing or research or whatever else it is that people need you to do. Just getting in the room sometimes is the best thing you can possibly do.

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December 28, 2016


Trevor Ambrose

  • Public Speaking , Uncategorized

Obama’s Speechwriter Shares 5 Storytelling Tips

  • 7 September

Jon Favreau Obama

There is a great story behind Obama’s excellence in his speeches.  Jon Favreau was the director of speechwriting for Obama for 8 years until 2014.  Jon shared five golden tips of storytelling that certainly do not only apply in politics, but in business presentations and every speech you need to make.

1. The story is more important than the words

“In my experience communications too often focuses on finding the right words. Of course words are important at some point in the process. But the first question you have to ask yourself is: what is the story I’m trying to sell? That is essential, and should be the starting point.”

Before Favreau started writing a speech, he would always start with simply talking to Obama. “He would give me a few random thoughts off the top of his head of what he wanted to say. The interesting thing about the President is that he always instantly gave the most logical outline of a speech I had ever heard. I was always impressed by his ability to start with clear rhetoric and add arguments and anecdotes later .”

2. Keep it simple

“Long speeches are the easiest to write. They are also the most forgettable”, Favreau explained. “Audiences today can only handle so much information before they start losing focus. You should aim at twenty minutes max. That requires tremendous discipline, especially if you’re in an organisation with a lot of people in the mix. But remember that a speech about everything is a speech about nothing. Narrow your story down to the essential point .”

3. Always address the arguments against your position during your presentation, not after.

Especially in politics it is important to think about the objections you will encounter. “You should find them and address them during your speech . When Obama was trying to deliver his Health Care Reform Plan in 2009, the most important part of his speech was to find the arguments that the Republicans would think of and contradict them.”

4. Empathy is key

Just knowing your audience is not enough, Favreau said. “You have to know what the world looks like when you are in their shoes. One of the reasons why Obama’s speeches are so successful is because they are written in the language that his audience understands , addressing the issues they are facing.”

5. There is no persuasion without inspiration

Emotion is the most important element of motivating an audience, according to Favreau: “The best way to connect with people is through stories that are important to people’s lives. In the victory speech in 2008 we had a clear message: sometimes change can come slow, but change is always possible and history has proved that.”

Favreau and Obama decided to use a special story about a woman named Ann Nixon Cooper:

She’s a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing – Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons – because she was a woman and because of the colour of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America – the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes, we can.

Favreau decided to give Ann Nixon Cooper a call before using her story in the speech: “I told her that man who was about to become President wanted to name her in his victory speech. She paused for a while and asked: ‘Will it be on television?’ I said ‘yes’. She waited a little longer. ‘Which channel will it be on?’, she asked, so I told her. That was when she said ‘I’m so proud of him, I’m so proud of us’. She started crying and so did I and at exactly that moment the results from Ohio came in. That was when I realised that it would always be difficult to bring about change but that it can happen if we believe.”

It is clear that we as humans love stories and the connection it brings to our lives.  Learn to tell stories and cement them with facts, anecdotes and logic.

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European Speechwriter Network 2024

The Power of Ideas

What a difference three days make: three days at the European Speechwriter Network. The event brought together political advisors, academics, and speechwriters: people involved in public policy from the West Wing, Westminster, and the corridors of power across Europe. Together with a group of Homerton Changemakers, I learned from the best about the art and science of speechwriting.

Day one was a deep dive into ideology as speechwriting strategy. Larry McEnerney, lecturer in speechwriting for 30 years at the University of Chicago, took aim at the commonplace that values underlie mission and strategy. Behind values, he argued, lurks deep ideology. For McEnerney, America's essential ideology is a belief in ideal types, a belief in a realm of immutable truths which provide the pattern for life. Reagan’s rhetorical strategy, he argued, was so successful because it appealed to deep cultural assumptions, an ideology which went beyond specific propositions to the very nature of truth. Yet, for all his success, Reagan could never go beyond the ideology on which he relied. Obama, by contrast, did just that. Obama’s rhetorical strategy was to begin with an appeal to deep ideological convictions, but to reason his way to progressive conclusions outside the existing consensus. 

Homerton Students assemble for a group photo on the first day of the European Speechwriter Network

Day two was an opportunity for speechwriters to talk to speechwriters about the state of politics, the state of the world and the state of their craft. Tessa van Beest, former advisor to the Dutch Prime Minister, acknowledge candidly that speechwriters have yet to develop a compelling language to counter populism. Discussing the impact of artificial intelligence, Justine Bashford argued that beyond the techniques and methods of speechwriting, public statements need an essential human meaning. Humans, she argued, will always beat AI as speechwriters as only “words that emanate from the heart, enter the heart.” Patrick Ross, until recently a speechwriter at West Wing Writers, gave a presentation on humour. Comedy, he claimed, is a good way of deflecting without sounding evasive; a good way of criticising without sounding arrogant; and a form of advocacy which is not preachy. Ross, who has recently taken a job with the Biden administration, won the evenings speechwriters competition. One of Homerton’s Changemakers took second place, no mean feat against such stiff opposition.

Speechwriter Patrick Ross winner of the speechwriter’s competition with student runners up.

Dan Sacker’s reflections on working as an advisor to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks were a highlight of day three. Sacker argued that Rabbi Sacks had a genuine faith in the power of ideas, and a desire to raise the tone of public debate through imparting timeless wisdom in a timely way. In so doing, Sacker reminded us of Rabbi Sacks' profound moral vision of society as “the home we build together”, a home which combines the distinctive contributions of different communities for the common good. Finally, we heard from Sandra Peri, former speech writer to Barack Obama, about the pace of writing in the White House. She admitted, in all humility, that more often than not, it was Obama's ad libs which cut through, rather than his scripted remarks.

Changemakers with Justine Bashford, Speechwriter to the Chairperson of Qatar Foundation, former leadership and communications specialist at the University of Cambridge.

The three-day event was an excellent chance to network. Everyone, even those who were working for Prime Ministers and Presidents, everyone was keen to talk, make connections and exchange ideas. And Homerton's students took full advantage of the opportunity.

My abiding impression of the conference was of a of group of people dedicated to the power of ideas, the value of argument and the importance of public discourse. As Hannah Arendt has shown, speech is essential in a diverse polity of equals. Through speech, we disclose ourselves to others; we persuade each other and formulate common projects; we make promises and seek forgiveness. While, slogans and sound bites close discussion down, speechwriting, at its best, opens up debate and opens up new possibilities through the exploration of ideas. 

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Christopher Edley Jr., Civil Rights Expert Heard by Presidents, Dies at 71

He pivoted between serving as an adviser to the Carter, Clinton and Obama White Houses and teaching at Harvard and Berkeley, where he was the law school dean.

A photo of a seated Mr. Edley in a dark suit and tie speaking before microphones and gesturing with his hands. He had short dark hair and a graying beard and wore metal-rimmed eyeglasses.

By Clay Risen

Christopher Edley Jr., a civil rights expert and policy adviser who worked closely with three Democratic presidents and six presidential campaigns and served as an innovative dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, died on Friday in Stanford, Calif. He was 71.

His wife, Maria Echaveste, a deputy chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, said the cause of death, in a hospital, was complications of surgery.

Though he spent most of his career in teaching, including 23 years at Harvard Law School, his alma mater, Mr. Edley’s career spanned the academic-political divide.

In the late 1970s, he worked for the White House domestic policy staff, specializing on issues like food stamps, child welfare and disability for President Jimmy Carter. Over a decade later, he took a leave from Harvard to be an associate director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton.

Both roles came after working as a top Democratic campaign adviser, a role he also performed for Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, Howard Dean and Barack Obama.

In all cases he was known as a stalwart advocate for liberal policies on race, especially affirmative action, a position that often put him at odds with Democratic centrists eager to moderate the party’s civil rights stance.

When, in 1995, Mr. Clinton named Mr. Edley to oversee a review of affirmative action under the slogan “mend it, don’t end it,” Mr. Edley made sure that very little mending was necessary. And he resisted pressure from inside the White House to engage with critics of affirmative action and other civil rights issues, whom he dismissed as dangerously disingenuous.

In 1991, he joined three other Black professors from top-tier law schools in testifying against the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, arguing that Justice Thomas — then a federal appeals court judge — was too much of a political partisan to make fair decisions, a charge that he lobbed at many other Black conservatives.

“Though their opposition to these measures is framed as principle,” he said of critics of affirmative action, writing in The Atlantic in 1997 , “certainly their real goal is to protect the current distribution of privilege and opportunity that has produced white-male elites in virtually every sector.”

By then he had returned to Harvard. Alarmed at a looming court case that seemed to threaten affirmative action in college admissions, Mr. Edley and a colleague, Gary Orfield , convened an emergency group of college presidents to discuss their plans should the courts dismantle racial preferences in education.

They found there were no plans, and in fact very little information about the state of civil rights and race-related policy in general. In response, Mr. Edley and Mr. Orfield founded the Civil Rights Project, which over the years has generated dozens of influential books, papers and conferences and become a model for creating research programs within law schools.

Mr. Edley did something similar after becoming dean of the Berkeley law school in 2004. He initiated a series of policy-oriented centers within the school focusing on issues like the environment and technology. He also greatly expanded the school’s classroom space and library and created grants and fellowships to support students interested in public-interest careers.

“He was really a transformative dean,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, the current dean and a classmate of Mr. Edley’s at Harvard Law.

Mr. Edley stepped down as dean of Berkeley law in 2013 to deal with treatment for prostate cancer. He returned to teaching in 2016, and in 2021 was interim dean of the university’s school of education.

Christopher Fairfield Edley Jr., was born on Jan. 13, 1953, in Boston, where his father, Chris Edley Sr., was completing legal studies at Harvard. His mother, Zaida (Coles) Edley, was an actress and speech therapist.

Christopher grew up in Philadelphia and New Rochelle, N.Y., following his father’s career as a prosecutor, program officer at the Ford Foundation and president of the United Negro College Fund.

He graduated with a degree in mathematics and economics from Swarthmore College in 1973, then enrolled at Harvard Law School, where he became the first second-generation Black student in the institution’s history. He took a leave of absence in 1976 to work for Mr. Carter’s presidential campaign, then joined the Carter White House after graduating in 1978, receiving both a law degree and a master’s in public policy.

After Mr. Carter lost re-election, Mr. Edley joined the faculty at Harvard Law, where he developed a specialty in education, civil rights and administrative law. Among his students was Mr. Obama.

Mr. Edley’s first two marriages ended in divorce. He met Ms. Echaveste while both were involved with the Clinton White House; they married in 1999. Along with her, he is survived by his son from his second marriage, Christopher Edley III; two children with Ms. Echaveste, Elias and Zara; a grandson; and his sister, Judith Edley.

While remaining at Berkeley as dean, Mr. Edley worked closely as an adviser to the Obama campaign, then joined the inner ranks of the transition team. But he resisted entreaties to join yet another White House team, preferring to remain focused on civil rights issues in California.

“This was ground zero for the opportunity struggle that defines the civil rights agenda,” he told The New York Times in 2007 . “The challenges in education, health care, immigration, the criminal justice system, here in California, capture what the battle for racial and ethnic justice is today.”

Clay Risen is a Times reporter on the Obituaries desk. More about Clay Risen

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The meaning, history and political rhetoric surrounding the term abortion ‘ban’

Experts say ‘ban’ has emerged as shorthand for nearly all abortion prohibitions. the blunt term often leaves room for political spin..

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Ban: Merriam-Webster  defines  it as “a legal or formal prohibition.”

But in the 2024 election cycle — the first general election since Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that enshrined a constitutional right to an abortion, was  overturned  — the term has morphed into polarizing political rhetoric. “Ban” has become synonymous with abortion and the wave of anti-abortion laws enacted in states across the country.

For example, on President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign website, the  abortion policy page’s  title reads: “Donald Trump wants to ban abortion nationwide. Re-elect Joe Biden to stop him and protect reproductive freedom.”

Trump appointed three of the U.S. Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe. After years of inconsistency, Trump  most recently  has said that laws on abortion should be left to the states and that he wouldn’t sign a national abortion ban.

Many Democrats and abortion rights activists have also zeroed in on down-ballot Republicans, accusing them of supporting abortion “bans,” even if their position allows for some access.

“Yesterday, we celebrated Mother’s Day. Today, I remind you that politicians like Bernie Moreno, who supports a national abortion ban, don’t want moms making their own healthcare decisions. Abortion rights are on Ohio’s ballot again in 2024,” Ohio Democrat Allison Russo wrote May 13  on X .

Moreno, who has Trump’s support, is a Republican running for Senate in Ohio against Democratic incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown. Moreno  has said  that he would vote for a 15-week national abortion ban.

Political discourse experts say “ban” has emerged as shorthand for nearly all abortion prohibitions. The blunt term, nuanced in its myriad interpretations, often leaves room for political spin.

What exactly is a ban?

“Ban” is not a medical term; people across the political spectrum on abortion define it differently.

The word has two main rhetorical functions, political discourse experts said. When people talk to like-minded people about a particular issue, it can reinforce the group’s beliefs. Or, it can label opponents as “extreme.”

“For example, when Joe Biden talks about an assault weapon ban, he’s not trying to convert skeptics — he’s signaling to people who already agree with them that they’re on the same team,” said Ryan Skinnell, an associate professor of rhetoric and writing at San Jose State University. “But the other way ‘ban’ works is to identify someone you disagree with as extreme. Groups who want to keep certain books out of libraries, for instance, rarely describe themselves as in support of book banning. Their opponents adopt that language.”

This dual usage reflects in the abortion fight. Abortion-rights activists use “ban” to signal an infringement on personal freedom and autonomy over medical decisions. Anti-abortion proponents may use “ban” to signal a protection of fetal life. For example, when introducing legislation that ban abortion at various stages,  Republican   politicians  have often framed the bills as moral imperatives that protect unborn life.

Peter Loge, a George Washington University professor who directs the school’s Project on Ethics in Political Communication, said ban has historically meant “to eliminate” or “not have,” but politicians employ a strategic ambiguity that allows listeners to assign their own meaning. Loge, who served as a senior adviser in former President Barack Obama’s Food and Drug Administration, said Obama did this with one of his campaign slogans: “Change We Can Believe In.”

“Well, what does ‘change’ mean? Clearly, it means whatever he thinks it means, but as a listener you will ascribe it to mean whatever you think it means,” Loge said. “So, if I think most abortions should be illegal and in some cases it’s OK, I can support a ban, because it’s a ban with exceptions. The listener plugs in whatever caveats they prefer and ascribes them to the speaker. This is a technique as far back as Aristotle, who wrote that the listener provides the reasoning for themselves.”

Loge, like Skinnell, said “ban” is often used in politics to showcase extremism and the threat of something being taken away.

“It’s the rhetoric of anger. ‘They want to take your rights from you. … Now it’s an ideological divide and it works because we’re going to be more motivated to vote,” Loge said. “People are more concerned about losing something they have than they are interested in getting something new. We are risk-averse.”

Nathan Stormer, a rhetoric professor at the University of Maine and an expert in abortion rhetoric, said the term usually shows up when people refer to making abortion illegal in pregnancy’s earlier stages. But, he added, although common usage typically refers to a first trimester threshold, there is “no set of rules.”

“Because it is not a consistently used term, I think when people do not specify what they are referring to, others may take them to mean at conception or very early, but one has to inquire about context,” Stormer wrote in an email.

How abortion ban rhetoric evolved

Before the 1970s, there was little discussion about abortion bans.

Although legal abortion existed in various states at various stages before the  Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973,  the ruling’s enshrinement of abortion rights across the country, helped galvanize opposition and mobilize anti-abortion groups.

“There were book bans, pornography bans, dancing bans, and so on. But even most conservative politicians and church groups weren’t especially concerned with abortion as an issue, and there was virtually no concerted political interest in bans,” Skinnell, from San Jose University, said. “That began to change with Richard Nixon.”

Skinnell said the former president’s advisers, in coordination with evangelical Christian church leaders, determined they could connect abortion to left-wing social movements, such as feminism, by linking them consistently in speeches and campaign materials.

“The idea of abortion bans came directly out of that partnership,” Skinnell said, “and it gathered steam in right-wing and conservative circles throughout the next few decades.”

Republicans further popularized the term in the mid-1990s, when they advocated for the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which President George W. Bush  signed into law  in 2003. The campaign to pass that legislation, experts said, introduced the term “ban” as the abortion restriction’s “stated intent.”

Political rhetoric experts said much of the medical literature and media coverage before Roe v. Wade often used terms such as “illegal” because abortion was considered a criminal act in most states.

“Even in the early stages of criminalizing abortion in the U.S., I don’t think ban was a common term,” Stormer said. “When a restriction is being put in place where before there was not one, people tend to resort to the word ban.”

Emily Winderman, a University of Minnesota professor specializing in the rhetorical study of health and medicine, said that over time abortion “bans” have manifested  as “incremental” restrictions throughout gestational development to the complete prohibitions seen in multiple states today.

For instance, she said, “heartbeat bills,” which typically refer to laws that make abortion illegal as early as six weeks of pregnancy, were controversial when they emerged around 2010, but have become more prevalent since the Trump administration and Roe’s overturning.

Winderman also said bans can appear via code and ordinance restrictions, such as banning  the type of use for a particular piece of real estate — making abortion clinics impossible to place.

“It’s important to understand bans as a complex strategy that includes gestational limits as well as limitations on who can provide care and where,” she said.

Shifting abortion laws across the U.S. have made “ban” an increasingly common term.  Forty-one states  now ban abortion at different points in pregnancy — 14 enforce total bans, three enforce six-week bans and others restrict abortion before fetal viability.

Stormer, from the University of Maine, pointed to Arizona’s Supreme Court reinstating an 1864 law that completely banned abortion. (It  has since been repealed. ) At the time the law was written, conception was not well understood, and there was no clear sense of fertilization or how it worked.

“Reinstating that law was a great example of how the conflict over abortion has remained steady and largely recognizable, but its terms and understandings have been constantly moving, which says something,” Stormer said. “So, specific words do important work, but they do not capture what is happening rhetorically, in my opinion. The moving terminologies are the waves crashing, but the tides are the thing.”

This fact check was originally published by PolitiFact , which is part of the Poynter Institute. See the sources for this fact check here .

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