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Helping to Write History

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 18, 2008

The job requires him to work unnoticed, even in plain view, so Jon Favreau settles into a wooden chair at a busy Starbucks in the center of Penn Quarter. Deadline looms, and he needs to write at least half a page by the end of the day. As the espresso machines whir, Favreau opens his laptop, calls up a document titled "rough draft of inaugural" and goes to work on the most anticipated speech of Barack Obama's life.

During the campaign, the buzz-cut 27-year-old at the corner table helped write and edit some of the most memorable speeches of any recent presidential candidate. When Obama moves to the White House next month, Favreau will join his staff as the youngest person ever to be selected as chief speechwriter. He helps shape almost every word Obama says, yet the two men have formed a concert so harmonized that Favreau's own voice disappears.

"He looks like he's in college and everybody calls him Favs, so you're like, 'This guy can't be for real, right?' " said Ben Rhodes, another Obama speechwriter. "But it doesn't take long to realize that he's totally synced up with Obama. . . . He has access to everything and everybody. There's a lot weighing on his shoulders."

Especially now, as Favreau and the rest of Obama's young staffers begin a transition that extends far beyond new job titles. Three months ago, Favreau lived in a group house with six friends in Chicago, where he rarely shaved, never cooked and sometimes stayed up to play video games until early morning. Now, he has transformed into what one friend called a "Washington political force" -- a minor celebrity with a down payment on a Dupont Circle condo, whose silly Facebook photos with a Hillary Rodham Clinton cutout created what passes for controversy in Obama's so far drama-free transition.

Favreau believes he will transition well if he focuses exclusively on writing, which is why he has buried himself in the inaugural address. He moves while he writes to avoid becoming stale -- from the Starbucks, to his windowless transition office, to his new, one-bedroom condo, where the only furniture in place is a blow-up mattress on the hardwood floor. He sometimes writes until 2 or 3 a.m., fueled by double espresso shots and Red Bull. When deadline nears, a speech consumes him until he works 16-hour days and forgets to call home, do his laundry or pay his bills. He calls it "crashing."

Last month, Favreau met for an hour in Chicago with Obama and adviser David Axelrod, as is their habit before important speeches. Obama told him to make the inaugural address no longer than 15 or 20 minutes, and they agreed to theme it around, Favreau said, "this moment that we're in, and the idea that America was founded on certain ideals that we need to take back." Obama asked for a first draft by Thanksgiving. Favreau explained that he had planned a vacation and promised a draft by this week.

During his vacation, Favreau e-mailed notes to himself via BlackBerry while visiting friends in Manhattan and talked about structure at his family's Thanksgiving dinner. He listened to recordings of past inaugural addresses and met with Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan's speechwriter, to seek advice. One of Favreau's assistants researched other periods in history when the United States faced crises; another interviewed historians such as David McCullough.

Still more daunting is the list of things Favreau can't think about as he writes the inaugural. He went for a run to the Lincoln Memorial last month and stopped in his tracks when he imagined the mall packed with 3 million people listening to some of his words. A few weeks later, Favreau winced when Obama spokesman Bill Burton reminded him: "Dude, what you're writing is going to be hung up in people's living rooms!"

"If you start thinking about what's at stake, it can get paralyzing," Favreau said.

Obama sometimes jokes that Favreau is not so much a speechwriter as a mind reader. He carries Obama's 1995 autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," with him almost everywhere and has memorized most of his famous keynote speech from the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He has mastered Obama's writing style -- short, elegant sentences -- and internalized his boss's tendency toward reflection and ideological balance.

Favreau's job is "to be like a baseball umpire," one co-worker said, and perform his task so deftly that nobody notices him. He listens to Obama tell stories in his office and spins them into developed metaphors, rich in historical context. When Obama delivers a speech on the road, Favreau studies the recording and notes the points at which Obama departs from the text so he can refine the riffs and incorporate them next time.

In four years together, Obama and Favreau have perfected their writing process. Before most speeches, Obama meets with Favreau for an hour to explain what he wants to say. Favreau types notes on his laptop and takes a crack at the first draft. Obama edits and rewrites portions himself -- he is the better writer, Favreau insists -- and they usually work through final revisions together. If Favreau looks stressed, Obama sometimes reassures him: "Don't worry. I'm a writer, too, and I know that sometimes the muse hits you and sometimes it doesn't. We'll figure it out together."

"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.

For Election Day, Favreau wrote two speeches -- one in case of a win and another for a loss. After Obama learned that he had won Pennsylvania and essentially secured the presidency, he called Favreau to make final word edits on the victory address. "Okay, this all sounds good," Favreau said when Obama finished making his changes. "And hopefully we never have to think about that other one again."

All told, Favreau spent more than 18 months on almost constant deadline, staying up until 5 a.m. during the financial crisis to craft speeches for the next day and waking up at 8 a.m. to obsess over the daily tracking polls, which he started calling "daily crack."

When the pressure wore on Favreau, he unwound like a 27-year-old, sending prank e-mails to friends at the Obama offices or playing the video game Rock Band in the Lincoln Park group house he shared with six campaign staffers. He visited Axelrod's office and sought advice. He called his best friend, Josh Porter, when he felt ready to break down.

"A few times he called at midnight, sounding just done," Porter said. "He would be like, 'I don't know if I can do this anymore. I'm in over my head. I'm starting to freak out.' "

But there were also moments of euphoria, when Favreau would catch himself choking up while riding in the motorcade or rehearsing with Obama backstage. Before he entered Grant Park on election night, to stand in the VIP section with his parents and younger brother to hear Obama speak, Favreau sent a quick e-mail to Porter at 9:07 p.m. The subject line read: "Dude."

"We won," Favreau wrote. "Oh my God."

Two weeks after the election, Favreau accepted a new job that essentially came with a new life. He moved back to Washington, hired a real estate agent, bought his first apartment and ordered furniture from Pottery Barn that sits unopened in nine boxes lined against his wall. He will need to buy more jackets and ties to replace his preferred outfit of jeans and a sweater. Friends joke that Favreau suddenly turned 40 this year -- but he still shows flashes of 27.

At a party at his parents' house over Thanksgiving vacation, he danced and posed awkwardly next to a cardboard cutout of Clinton. A buddy uploaded photos onto Facebook, reporters discovered them, and suddenly experts were debating Favreau's maturity on television. Favreau called Clinton and Obama to apologize. They told him not to worry, but he still does.

How is this supposed to work, anyway? Do Favreau and the rest of Obama's young staffers transform to meet the formalities of the White House, or does the White House change to accommodate them? For almost two years during the campaign, Favreau and his speechwriting staff came to work in jeans and communicated via instant messaging. When they needed to write, they crammed together into a closet-size room, feet on the table, downing energy drinks and ordering takeout late into the night.

"We were always informal -- that's Favs's style," said Rhodes, one of the speechwriters. "I don't think he ever scheduled a meeting where we all sat down at a table and said, 'Here's what we have to do this week.' And if he had, we probably would have laughed at him."

But now Favreau and the other senior speechwriters are preparing to move into separate offices and expand their staff. Favreau expects to hire four or five more writers -- including a few who focus on foreign policy -- and he's unsure how to manage them. "My biggest strength isn't the organization thing," he said. A few of the other speechwriters have volunteered to help train and direct new hires.

Obama's speeches are likely to evolve, too. Some will focus more on policy, Favreau said, and a few dozen bureaucrats will want to parse each word. Andrei Cherny, a former White House speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, called Favreau after the election to congratulate him and then warned that, in the White House, "the scrutiny and the power is unlike anyplace else."

"We know that we're going to have to approach the White House our way and have some fun with it," Favreau said, "because that kind of attitude is what made us successful."

No matter how it goes, Favreau believes this will be his last job in politics -- "anything else would be so anticlimactic," he said. Someday, he wants to write in his own voice, for himself.

"Maybe I'll write a screenplay, or maybe a fiction book based loosely on what all of this was like," Favreau said. "You had a bunch of kids working on this campaign together, and it was such a mix of the serious and momentous and just the silly ways that we are. For people in my generation, it was an unbelievable way to grow up."

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