Michelle Obama surely understands the pressure Melania Trump was under as she gave a prime-time address at the Republican National Convention last night.
Back in 2008, Obama was a hospital executive-turned-aspiring first lady looking to reintroduce herself to the nation after a bruising primary campaign. Her big chance to do that was on stage at Invesco Field at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
The Obama team understood the importance of the moment: Michelle Obama had started off the campaign by writing her own remarks — and hit some rocky patches. So before her most high-profile speech, she was assigned a veteran speechwriter: Sarah Hurwitz.
The Harvard law graduate had been hired onto the 2008 Obama campaign from the rival Hillary Clinton campaign only days after the candidate conceded defeat. Hurwitz had been Clinton’s chief speechwriter but members of Obama’s team knew her well: Jon Favreau, who was Barack Obama’s head speechwriter, had worked with Hurwitz on John Kerry’s campaign for president.
The convention speech was her first major assignment for the Obamas. Hurwitz approached their first meeting nervously, she told me in an interview earlier this spring, thinking the candidate’s wife might be suspicious of a Clinton confidante after the bruising primary fight. Instead, Michelle Obama and Hurwitz quickly found an easy collaborative rhythm.
Hurwitz’s method is to try to spend time with the politicians she’s working for, and get to know their stories and their voices so she can turn their thoughts and ideas into prose. She is student of history, and friends described her as someone who is passionate about reaching audiences outside of the traditional political space.
Her second meeting with Mrs. Obama was a 90-minute conversation in the living room of the Obamas’ Chicago home, both of them well aware they were writing for an enormous national audience, many of whom would be listening to Michelle for the first time.
“She clearly said to me: ‘Okay, this is who I am. This is where I come from. This is my family. These are my values, and this is what I want to talk about at the convention,’ ” Hurwitz recalled in the interview earlier this year. “I realized then that Michelle Obama knows who she is, and she always knows what she wants to say.”
The major theme of the speech — which was preceded at the convention by a video called “South Side Girl” — was the story of her Chicago childhood, and the values and vision for America that she was taught by her parents.
“Like her husband, Michelle wrote a lot of that 2008 campaign speech herself,” Barack Obama’s former head speechwriter Jon Favreau tweeted Tuesday morning. But Hurwitz was deeply involved: She wrote a first draft of the speech and Mrs. Obama gave her feedback. Hurwitz made changes, and together they continued to tweak the speech.
Since then, they have continued to work closely together. Hurwitz does her best to avoid writing lines for the first lady that sound like something a traditional politician would say.
In fact, Michelle Obama purposely did not read the books of previous first ladies or study them closely before her husband was elected to the White House — and there were no glaring echoes of previous first lady’s remarks in her 2008 speech.
Hurwitz did not respond to a request to comment through the East Wing Tuesday morning.
Hurwitz’s colleagues have praised her for her ability to help political figures find their voice. Asked how Hurwitz does her job, former colleague Jon Lovett said: “It’s not that complicated. Sarah is very talented. She’s very good at helping [the first lady] find a more substantive and personal way of talking about issues. There are people that are just really well suited to write for somebody and it’s a really good match.”
Presidential scholars said a successful relationship between a speechwriter and their principal comes down to trust and access to their thinking.
“It is not simply capturing the person’s voice because that alone would be mimicry. . . but knowing them well enough to figure out how their mind works,” said Robert Schlesinger, author of “White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters” and an editor at U.S. News & World Report.
On Thursday, the Trump campaign said it had assigned speechwriters to each of the candidate’s family members — but prior to her big speech Melania Trump told interviewers she was trying to write with as little help as possible.