The Obama Speechwriter
Helping to Write History
Thursday, December 18, 2008; Page A01
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."