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Obama's Chief Speechwriter, 27, Works on Inaugural Address While Making His Own Transition
"The president-elect understands that Jon is a rare talent. He knows what he's got," said Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor, who also worked in the Senate office. "There's a mutual respect and appreciation between them, and the president-elect trusts Jon's instincts and ability. It's a partnership."
They stumbled upon it by accident in 2004, when Obama, just elected to the Senate, needed to hire a speechwriter. He brought Favreau, then 23, into the Senate dining room for an interview on his first day in office. They talked for 30 minutes about harmless topics such as family and baseball before Obama turned serious.
"So," he said. "What's your theory on speechwriting?"
Awkward silence. Favreau, just graduated from Holy Cross, had talked his way onto Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential campaign in 2003 and had become a press assistant, arriving at the office at 3 a.m. to clip newspapers. The speech he had given as class valedictorian circulated around the staff, and Favreau eventually got a shot at speechwriting. He wrote well and rose to the top of the department, but there was never any time to formulate theories. Now, Favreau looked at Obama and went with his gut.
"A speech can broaden the circle of people who care about this stuff," Favreau said. "How do you say to the average person that's been hurting: 'I hear you. I'm there. Even though you've been so disappointed and cynical about politics in the past, and with good reason, we can move in the right direction. Just give me a chance.' "
"I think this is going to work," Obama said.
Favreau worked for more than two years in Obama's Senate office before moving to Chicago to help with the presidential campaign. He hired speechwriters Rhodes and Adam Frankel -- and, a year later, former Clinton speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz -- and together they crafted the speeches Obama delivered on the night of each primary.
The writers could sometimes crank out a 1,500-word speech in one or two days, working in Obama's Chicago headquarters almost until sunrise. Sometimes, it took Favreau and his team hours to conceptualize the opening few lines. They gathered in a tiny office and formed sentences out loud, each word mulled and debated, until suddenly -- yes! -- they could envision the whole speech.
"When we were on, we could finish each other's thoughts," Frankel said. "We knew where we were going next. We were in total alignment on those speeches."
One Saturday night in March, Obama called Favreau and said he wanted to immediately deliver a speech about race. He dictated his unscripted thoughts to Favreau over the phone for 30 minutes -- "It would have been a great speech right then," Favreau said -- and then asked him to clean it up and write a draft. Favreau put it together, and Obama spent two nights retooling before delivering the address in Philadelphia the following Tuesday.
"So," Obama told Favreau afterward. "I think that worked."
Favreau wrote a first draft of the Democratic National Convention acceptance speech, but his boss thought it lacked direction. Obama rewrote it, and it ended up almost 15 minutes too long. Favreau spent three days traveling across the country with Obama so they could trim the speech, editing until a few hours before Obama stepped to the lectern in front of more than 84,000 people in Denver.