Jon Favreau: The voice behind a generational voice

 /  Dec. 1, 2013, 8:11 p.m.


JF_Obama

Jon Favreau left the White House earlier this year after serving as President Obama’s Director of Speechwriting since 2005. A member of the President’s closest group of advisors on the Hill and in the White House, Favreau was a fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics last spring, and is currently building his own communications strategy firm, Fenway Strategies, in Washington. Favreau sat down with the Gate to talk about blacking out in front of then-Senator Obama, writing mechanics, and the famous campaign speech he wrote after throwing a house party.

The Gate: This is less of a question than a demand: Tell me your best Joe Biden story that’s under ten minutes-long.

Jon Favreau: [Laughs] My best Joe Biden story is when the President’s personal secretary, Katie Johnson, left the White House. She was thrown many parties…[and] Joe Biden was kind enough...he said, “I want you and ten of your closest friends to come to the Naval Observatory and have a barbeque. Jill isn’t home, I’m there by myself, and it’d be great to have all you guys over.” And so Joe Biden invites us all over to the Naval Observatory, and he has an entire barbeque in the backyard, by the pool. And it’s not one of those things where you...you have to think--if any kind of politician did something like this, and you have all these people over, you have like a drop by, where the politician comes in and says hi, greets everyone for a little while and then says “Have fun, I’m gonna go do whatever.” Joe Biden spent like three or four hours out in the backyard with all of us, sitting and eating with us, and he told so many stories. There were three or four tables set up, and there was about six of us at a table, and he told so many stories about Southern senators and his time in the Senate--amazing story after amazing story, and he just held court. He gives us an entire tour of the Naval Observatory, a personally-led tour. And he’s got his dog, and at one point we’re out on the front lawn and he’s got his golf club, and he whacks the ball and the dog runs after it. It was such a great moment because you get how the public persona of Joe Biden is very much like his private persona, both because he’s very animated and loves telling stories, but also because he’s just this warm, wonderful person who took all this time out of his very busy schedule to hang out with a bunch of people, he, you know, maybe kind of knew.

Gate: What were you first interactions with Obama like?

Favreau: I first met President Obama when I was backstage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. My job was to make sure that all of the speeches that were being delivered at the convention were on message with the Kerry campaign. And so I get a call at one point from the road, where John Kerry was traveling and working on his convention speech, that one of the speakers, a young state senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, was giving the keynote address, and he had a line in his speech that John Kerry had in his speech. And they asked me to go and talk to Obama and ask him to remove this line. I figured this was some kind of sick hazing ritual. So I walk into the room where Obama is practicing his convention speech for the very first time, and I see Robert Gibbs, who I knew because he had been my boss in the Kerry campaign when I was an assistant. And I ask Gibbs if he can talk to Obama about this line. He said, “I’m not talking to him! You talk to him!” So I walk up to Obama and mumble what I have to say, and he kind of leans over me and looks down and says, “Are you telling me I have to take out my favorite line in this speech?” At that point I blacked out for a few seconds, and then all of a sudden I was out in the hallway with David Axelrod, who I had just met for the first time. Axe said, “Don’t worry about it; we’re just going to rewrite the line together. It’s going to be fine.” And that was it--I thought that’d be the last time that I ever saw Barack Obama.

Gate: How did you get Obama’s attention after that backstage incident?

Favreau: After the campaign ended, and John Kerry lost, Robert Gibbs emailed me and told me Obama’s looking for a speechwriter. He’s never had one before, but now he needs to learn to work with one because he’s going to be very busy. He asked if I would have breakfast with him in the Senate. It’s his first week there, and he’s just getting used to the place. So we all go to the Senate cafeteria, and there’s the senators-only dining room where all the big wigs are eating, and Barack Obama just grabs his tray, and we sit in the cafeteria next to all the cooks and the waiters. The three of us sit down for breakfast, and Obama just starts asking me about my life, my family, why I got into politics, what college was like. He completely put me at ease. At the end of the interview he said, “You know, I still don’t think I need a speechwriter, but you seem nice enough, so let’s give this a whirl.”

Gate: How improbable was it that someone with your background ended up writing for someone like Barack Obama?

Favreau: David Remnick asked me once, “So you’re a white, twenty-something year-old from a suburb of Boston. How do you identify with the first black president?” I said, you know, look: One of the reasons that any famous speaker--a politician, political leader, or cultural leader--can inspire a nation or the world, is because they tap into certain shared experiences that anyone can relate to. Martin Luther King is a civil rights hero, but he is remembered as an American hero, because “I Have a Dream” can speak to anyone, whether you’re black or white or rich or poor. And not to compare him to Martin Luther King, but what Obama did in that 2004 Convention speech was speak about his own story--the specifics of which are very foreign to most Americans, but the values and the common experiences he speaks about are something anyone can relate to. So I’m very conscious of that, that I’m writing for someone who is always seeking to appeal to anyone, no matter who you are or where you come from, or how you started out.

Gate: In college, or even while you were writing speeches for Kerry, did you ever see yourself as someone who could write speeches for a President? How did your academic experience, or your private reading and writing, influence that transition?

Favreau: I didn’t know specifically that I wanted to be a speechwriter. I’ve always loved writing. I loved writing in college--I was the opinions editor of the newspaper at Holy Cross. I did the same thing in high school, so I was involved in journalism and writing that way. I also, as I got more into politics in college, started writing opinion columns about political issues on campus, and national political issues. By junior or senior year in college I was very interested in political writing, which landed me in the press/communications area of politics, which is what I did for Kerry. But it wasn’t until I really sat down next to the Kerry campaign’s chief speechwriter that I really thought to myself, “I’d really love to be a speechwriter. This sounds like a cool job.”

Gate: How does reading influence speechwriting?

Favreau: It’s something that keeps you full of new ideas, keeps you up to date on what’s going on around you, what the news is, what the political climate is, what the environment is. What I’ve read primarily while I was a speechwriter was the news, because you don’t have time to read anything else. You’re not reading fiction. I kept up to speed on every single political news story there was out there, and I would also be heavily involved in reading the recent research we did for the speeches--speeches of past presidents, historical anecdotes, and research about the policy I was writing about. When there’s free time, and you read something that’s more than just a straight political news story, I try to read long-form pieces in The New Yorker or New York Magazine or The Atlantic. The President reads all of those as well. He’s quite a voracious reader, and he still has historical biographies on his desk that he tries to break into once in a while.

Gate: Where do you think Obama’s very literary voice comes from?

Favreau: It’s interesting: I don’t really know. He kind of wrote Dreams From My Father out of nowhere. As he talks about in Dreams From My Father--throughout his childhood and early adulthood--he was on this very long journey to discover who he was, and where he fit in in the world around him. I think that journey raised a lot of questions in his own mind that he answered through his writing.

Gate: How did you and Obama use older Presidential speechwriting to guide your own work?

Favreau I read a lot of FDR, Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, who obviously wasn’t president but wrote some of the best speeches, in my opinion. Lyndon Johnson wrote really great speeches. And then especially Bush and Clinton, as far as what presidents did who sat here in modern times, and maybe had a similar event--how they dealt with it. So there’s two things we’re looking for in past speeches: One is how did a president deal with a specific issue or policy that’s similar to the one we’re dealing with. And two--what kind of inspiration can we gain from the way this president spoke about this issue.

Gate: How has speechmaking formed Obama’s political identity?

Favreau: I think it’s very rare that a single speech launches a politician’s career into the national spotlight. There are a couple speeches that launched his career: the 2002 speech announcing his opposition to the war in Iraq, which is a very powerful speech he gave in Chicago that kind of put him on the map. The 2004 convention speech continued that...What he has done differently is break free from the typical political rhetoric that has invaded most of our politics today. He’s authentic; he tries to speak in an authentic way; he tries to be honest about issues that people are usually afraid to be honest about; he’s not a cautious speaker--to the extent that he can, he says what’s on his mind. When you think about the race speech, the Cairo speech--he will tackle issues in an honest way that you don’t usually expect from politicians. Speeches for him are a way to communicate authentically in a way that some other politicians have been afraid to do.

Gate: Is the success of the speechwriter dependent on having the same ear as the person he or she is writing speeches for? Is it more a matter of language or personality?

Favreau: I think personality helps, for sure. There are a lot of us who have worked for President Obama, and we all have different personalities. I think that if you expect to capture someone’s voice, and do it well, you need to know that person. You don’t need to know them right at the outset, but you need to get to know that person really well. Part of that is reading everything they’ve written and said, but a lot of it is just spending time with them, and not only getting to know the rhythms of that person’s speaking style, but how that person thinks, and you can only get that through a closer relationship. I think that people who try to capture someone’s voice who do it through five different layers of advisors will ultimately fail.

Gate: But did you already have the right kind of ear? Or can you just train yourself to speak a certain way?

Favreau: I think about politics very similarly to the way the President thinks about politics. A number of us do that work for him, so I think that helps. If I came to politics from a different viewpoint, not just if I had different views on specific issues, but if I had just kind of thought about it in a more conventional way, in a more top-down way, in a more Washington-centric way than I do, then I think I would have a harder time working for the President. I think because I came from a background at Holy Cross where I did some community service work and community organizing, and I believe very much in the power of ordinary people being able to do extraordinary things. That was part of my real world experience in college, but that’s also what I learned through sociology and political science, what I learned from the professors I had in school. So I think in that way we’re similar.

Gate: How did being Obama’s speechwriter influence the way you followed and interpreted news? Did you always have to think about events in relation to however you were going to translate them into the language of speeches?

Favreau: I follow news to know what the narrative is, to know what’s on reporters’ minds. People write many different stories, but there’s usually one theme or narrative out of any week. As a president, I don’t think you want to be reactive or responsive to every single narrative that comes out of the press, because they change with the weather, and with every hour. But at the same time, if you completely ignore what’s going on there, that’s the filter by which you can communicate to the American people, primarily. So you have to know what that is and be able to at least act like you’re aware.

Gate: Were you always nervous when you were reading the news that you’d have to sit down soon after and write something about it in the form of a speech? Did that train your mind to always have to be in that mode?

Favreau: Yeah, it does train your mind. Part of it is that this is something happening in the press; this is what everyone’s talking about on TV. I have to figure out how much we’re going to respond to that or not respond to it. It’s not my job alone; it’s the job of the communications director, the senior advisor. Everyone talks about it. The president makes decisions about this as well. But when it actually comes to the words and the lines, part of this is figuring out how exactly you’re going to shape it.

Gate: Is part of the fun as a speechwriter telling stories for someone else?

Favreau: I think most people are reluctant to talk about themselves, to make everything about themselves...As a speechwriter you can help the person you’re writing for bring out personal stories. When I got to the White House, he had this rich array of stories in Dreams From My Father and other places in his life, that when it made sense to put them in speeches about relevant topics in policy areas, I make sure to do that. It’s not just a political thing. I think you are a better storyteller when you draw from your own experiences.

Gate: You wrote a first draft of the Second Inaugural Address in a room in your parents’ house. Did you often feel a serious disconnect between the settings in which you wrote and the significance of what you wrote?

Favreau: I find that I do better if I have a lot of different places to go to. There’s very few times when I’ve sat in one place and drafted an entire speech. I can’t do that. I’ve been to many Starbucks. If I was writing a speech here, I’d write part of it in this office, then go back to my apartment, then try to find a coffee shop, then go outside by the lake. For me I have to go to as many different locations as possible.

Gate: What is President Obama like to work with? What is he like as a writer and editor in that personal of an environment?

Favreau: He’s easy to work with. We obviously write under incredibly high-pressure situations, which I’m always aware of, but he doesn’t necessarily make you aware of that. We were working on the Nobel Peace Prize speech right up until the last second, and Ben Rhodes and I were completely crazed and worried that we weren’t going to make it and thinking horrible thoughts. The President was just completely calm and collected, not worried, as if he had weeks and weeks. He calms you. You don’t expect the president to be calming. As a writer and editor, his edits always add the truth to the speech that’s been missing, that kernel of something that you wouldn’t hear a normal politician say. That’s what he always adds to speeches, substantively. Rhetorically, he has a great ear for rhythm and for really nice words and phrases and imagery that you wouldn’t normally put into a speech, that aren’t cliché, but bring the words on the paper to life.

Gate: There are these well-known photos of drafts of his speeches with his pen marks and edits all across the page. Is there a point at which he’s more concerned with diction and syntax than how the paragraphs are working together?

Favreau: It’s always in two stages: the first stage of different drafts of the speeches are substance. He’s worried about getting the substance right. That’s when he’ll reorder speeches or tell you, “I want this argument first,” or, “You haven’t talked enough about this policy,” or, “I want to make sure I make this argument.” So we go through many drafts that way. Once that’s set, then the back and forth is him just line editing. He doesn’t take pen to paper at the beginning stages when we’re dealing with substantive edits. Those he’ll tell me about. He’ll write on a separate piece of paper some ideas for me. But when he actually gets to the point where he’s marking up the page--that is just line edits, words, rhetoric, all that stuff.

Gate: When and where does he often work on his edits?

Favreau: Always at night. On big speeches like the State of the Union and the inaugural addresses, he’ll do it during the day in the Oval Office if he has an hour. Usually the line editing he can do during the day if he has an hour in the Oval, because it isn’t as labor-intensive. But when he really needs to think about the substance of a speech, he’ll do it at like 1, 2, 3 in the morning when he’s up.

Gate: Did you just get used to sitting right next to the President in the Oval Office with both of you looking at your Macbook? Was that ever weird to you?

Favreau: It’s funny--as a child, especially when I started getting interested in politics, the White House was this dream of mine. I had never had a White House tour. I had never been there. But when I finally arrived there, and I walked into the Oval for the first time with Barack Obama, it was like, “Wow, look where Barack Obama and all of us got. Look where we are right now.” And not, “I’m in the White House with the President.” I knew him for a couple of years before he got to the White House, so I never see him as “Oh my god it’s the President, and I’m sitting with the President.” It’s Barack Obama, who I’ve known for a long time. But The White House to us was still just, “wow.”

Gate: What are the different ways you guys talk to each other?

Favreau: There are many different ways to communicate with the President. Since he works so late at night, he’ll have to call me, so I’ll have to be aware that if my phone rings and it’s a blocked or private number, then it’s probably the White House operator telling me that the President is on the phone. Or we’ll email back and forth about a speech when he has some edits, or when he just needs to see me up in the residence or in the Oval, when there’s time for edits. During the day it’s much easier; he’ll just call me at my desk and I’ll run upstairs, and we’ll talk that way.

Gate: Where does the perception of him being so aloof come from?

Favreau: I honestly think that the aloof characterization comes from a view of the presidency that a lot of folks have in Washington, where the President is king and has a magic wand and can make any problem go away. If he can’t make a problem go away, all he has to do to make a problem go away is twist some arms and bring folks up to Camp David for a drink. Magically, all they care about is being wooed by the President. They don’t actually have constituencies or politics to deal with. They’re just sitting there in Congress waiting to be stroked by the President of the United States. That’s all. So I think that’s where the aloof characterization comes from. The truth is that the President is a people person: he talks all the time to members of Congress; he golfs with Boehner; he does all this stuff. But he has a wife and kids he wants to spend time with, and he’d rather have dinner with them than go to a Washington cocktail party. If he thought that going to a Washington cocktail party would pass his bill, he would cocktail it up all day long. But I think he’s realistic about what needs to get done to get certain pieces of legislation passed.

Gate: Is there a serious or harmful divide between the idealism of his language and the bureaucracy of presidential politics?

Favreau: I don’t think so, because I think he’s very clear-eyed in knowing that the idealism of the speeches is just that--it’s something to strive for. He’s very realistic about what is. He knows that the bureaucracy can be a pain; he knows that Congress can be partisan and gridlocked; he knows all the things that are getting in the way of passing the legislation he wants to pass. But that’s no reason to him to not speak in idealistic language and say, “Let’s reach for that. Let’s do better.” His basic philosophy can be summed up as, “We’re not going to fix everything, and not everything can be fixed, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and that doesn’t mean that if we chip away at some of these big problems, even if we don’t solve them, that’s progress.”

Gate: You were part of a White House staff that’s been frequently criticized as being too insular, too Chicago-oriented. Why does that perception exist?

Favreau: I think it persists because it’s been the perception of every president. Bush, it was that he had too much of an Austin crowd. Clinton, they were too Arkansas. Washington always tells people who come to Washington that they need more Washington people. The sheer number of former Clinton and Carter people the President has hired, people from academia, people from the business world: Tim Geithner was from the Federal Reserve, Larry Summers was a Clinton person. It’s a pretty non-Chicago crowd, actually. But whenever things are going wrong, the poll numbers are down; there are a few common tropes that Washington likes to talk about: One is, “He’s too aloof! Too insular! Need to bring in more people! Need to shake up the staff! Need to get out of Washington!”

Gate: I know you’re interested in writing screenplays. What’s so appealing about political television that would draw you away from Washington?

Favreau: So I don’t think there’s anything appealing about political TV per se. I think what’s appealing to me is that I’m always looking for ways to reach people, to inspire people about the possibilities of public service who might not necessarily be political junkies, and who might not feel that politics is for them, and who might think that the whole thing is just cynical garbage, and everyone’s in it for themselves. I think there’s many ways to do that. But one of the most interesting ways for me is entertainment and culture as a way of reaching out to people and saying, “You know what? There’s some value here, and there’s some good things being done." I was inspired by The West Wing when I was in college, and my buddy and I have thought for a long time that we’re due for a younger, campaign-related version of The West Wing that doesn’t have to do with the president and his top advisors, but has to do with all the other people, especially the young people that get involved with these things.

Gate: What was your Washington work routine like? Did you often have to stay late at the White House?

Favreau: In a lot of ways it’s just like college. When there’s a paper due, there’s nothing else you do but the paper, or a test. You lock yourself away, you procrastinate, and then suddenly you find yourself up all night. When that’s over and you don’t have anything to do the next couple days, you leave. Mine was not a job where you sat there and put in face time just because you needed to put in face time. You made sure that you did your work when there was work to do. In the White House, it was a little better than the campaign, because I had a bigger team. There were more people writing speeches, so we kind of gave each other a break when we could.

Gate: Do you have a good story about getting called back when you were out with your friends?

Favreau: [Laughs] So I was here in Chicago, and it was like two weeks before the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, and I had been up multiple nights until two or three in the morning, myself, Adam Franklin, Ben Rhodes, trying to write the Jefferson-Jackson speech. Finally we put it away for a while. And we had this speech in South Carolina that was supposed to be a year before actual election day. So we did our latest version of the Jefferson-Jackson speech there, and he gives the speech during the day on Saturday and it’s great, everything’s fine. Then I get a call at 11:30 Saturday night from Axelrod. He said, “Hey, I just talked to the President. He loved the speech today, and he said that’s what he wants the Jefferson-Jackson speech to be, except it is twenty minutes and the J-J speech needs to be ten, so can you cut it down? And he wants it by tomorrow morning.” And I had just cracked open my beer for the night, and I have all these people in my apartment. And so I run out of the house, make a cup of coffee, and I walk down Michigan Avenue, went into my office at 12 or 1 AM and stayed up all night until 10 AM and rewrote the speech.

Gate: What inner qualities can speechwriting give you?

Favreau: One of the qualities that it has taught me most of all is empathy, which is a good quality in life. As a speechwriter you need to put yourself in other people’s shoes, because you need to know what the audience would want to hear; you want to know where they’re coming from and where they are. You’re always trying to meet people where they are. I think that’s a valuable lesson to learn about life, to not judge people right away, to figure out where they’re coming from. It helps you understand the people you’re working with, the people you’re living with. It’s a very valuable tool to have, and the President is very skilled at it, and I think the best speakers and the best leaders often are.

Gate: Do you see yourself ever being a speechwriter for someone else?

Favreau: I don’t. I worked for a candidate and president I could never have dreamed of being so inspiring to me, and such a wonderful boss, and a good man to work for. And now that I’ve done that, putting as much time and sweat and energy, and so much of my life into something like that again just doesn’t seem like it would be worth it to me. If someone comes along, like another Barack Obama, who knows? But for now, there’s so much of politics that I dislike, that I don’t see myself as a political lifer. I see myself as someone who really, truly admires Barack Obama and what he’s trying to do, and I’d do anything he asks me to do. Beyond that, I have very strong views about politics that I’ll continue to share, and it’s going to be hard to shake politics out of my system completely, but putting in the effort and the years with someone else would be tough.

This interview has been edited and condensed for this publication. The featured image above of Jon Favreau speaking with President Obama in the Oval Office can be found at the White House's official website. The image is an Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, taken on January 23, 2012. This third-party content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License and is not copyright protected.


Noah Weiland


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