[Words to inspire the black youth of America come from this idealistic white boy.]
Jacob Silberberg for The New York Times
TURNING A PHRASE Jon Favreau, chief speechwriter to Senator Barack Obama, at work the night of the New Hampshire primary.
By ASHLEY PARKER
Published: January 20, 2008
AT the Radisson Hotel in Nashua, N.H., Jon Favreau sipped Diet Coke and munched on carrot sticks and crackers to pass the time. His boss, Senator Barack Obama, wandered in and out of the room.
Steve Pope/European Pressphoto Agency
ECHOES Barack Obama’s speeches are written in his own style.
Finally, results from the New Hampshire Democratic primary started coming in, surprising everyone. Hillary Clinton was pulling past Senator Obama, who had won the Iowa caucuses only five days earlier.
Mr. Favreau, the campaign’s 26-year-old head speechwriter, found himself in the hotel lounge with less than three hours to revise what was to have been a victory speech. What made it particularly strange was that his words were being challenged. Mrs. Clinton had helped turn her campaign around by discounting Mr. Obama’s elegant oratory, saying, “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.”
“To be honest,” Mr. Favreau said, “the first time I really stopped to think about how it felt was when he started giving the speech. I looked around at the senior staff, and they were all smiling. And I looked around the room and thought, ‘This is going to be O.K.’ ”
Mr. Favreau, or Favs, as everyone calls him, looks every bit his age, with a baby face and closely shorn stubble. And he leads a team of two other young speechwriters: 26-year-old Adam Frankel, who worked with John F. Kennedy’s adviser and speechwriter Theodore C. Sorensen on his memoirs, and Ben Rhodes, who, at 30, calls himself the “elder statesman” of the group and who helped write the Iraq Study Group report as an assistant to Lee H. Hamilton.
Together they are working for a politician who not only is known for his speaking ability but also wrote two best-selling books and gave the much-lauded keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
“You’re like Ted Williams’s batting coach,” Mr. Favreau said.
But even Ted Williams needed a little help with his swing.
“Barack trusts him,” said David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s chief campaign strategist. “And Barack doesn’t trust too many folks with that — the notion of surrendering that much authority over his own words.”
When he first met Mr. Obama, Mr. Favreau was 23, a recent graduate of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., near where he grew up. Mr. Obama was rehearsing his 2004 convention speech backstage, when Mr. Favreau, then a member of John Kerry’s staff, interrupted him: the senator needed to rewrite a line from his speech to avoid an overlap.
“He kind of looked at me, kind of confused — like, ‘Who is this kid?’ ” Mr. Favreau recalled.
Mr. Obama became his boss the following year. Mr. Favreau had risen to a job as a speechwriter on the Kerry campaign, but by then was unemployed. He was, he said, “broke, taking advantage of all the happy-hour specials I could find in Washington.”
Robert Gibbs, Mr. Obama’s communications director, had known Mr. Favreau during the Kerry campaign, and recommended him as a writer.
Life was relatively quiet then, and Mr. Obama and Mr. Favreau had some time to hang out. When Mr. Obama’s White Sox swept Mr. Favreau’s beloved Red Sox three games to none in their American League 2005 division series, the senator walked over to his speechwriter’s desk with a little broom and started sweeping it off.
Mr. Favreau also used this time to master Mr. Obama’s voice. He took down almost everything the senator said and absorbed it. Now, he said, when he sits down to write, he just channels Mr. Obama — his ideas, his sentences, his phrases.
“The trick of speechwriting, if you will, is making the client say your brilliant words while somehow managing to make it sound as though they issued straight from their own soul,” said the writer Christopher Buckley, who was a speechwriter for the first President Bush. “Imagine putting the words ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ into the mouth of Ron Paul, and you can see the problem.”
Many Democratic candidates have attempted to evoke both John and Robert Kennedy, but Senator Obama seems to have had more success than most. It helps that Mr. Obama seems to have the élan that John Kennedy had, not to mention a photogenic family.
For his inspiration, Mr. Favreau said, “I actually read a lot of Bobby” Kennedy.
“I see shades of J.F.K., R.F.K.,” he said, and then added, “King.”
Not everyone is so enamored. Mr. Obama excels at inspirational speeches read from a teleprompter before television cameras, critics have noted, but many of his other speeches on the campaign trail have failed to electrify.
Ted Widmer, a historian at Brown University, said that Mr. Obama’s speeches “were perfect for getting to where he was early in the race, but I think now that we’re in a serious campaign, it would be helpful to hear more concrete proposals.”
“There’s more to governing, there’s more to being president, than speechwriting,” he added.
Mr. Favreau said that when he is writing, he stays up until 3 a.m. and gets up as early as 5. He hasn’t slept for more than six hours in as long as he can remember, he said.
Coffee helped him through the Iowa caucuses. Two days before the victory there, he walked across the street from the campaign’s Des Moines headquarters and cloistered himself inside a local cafe.
He and Mr. Obama had talked about the post-caucus speech for about 30 minutes, settling on a theme of unity and an opening line: “They said this day would never come.”
“I knew that it would have multiple meanings to multiple people,” Mr. Favreau said. “Barack and I talked about it, and it was one that worked for the campaign. There were many months during the campaign when they said he’d never win. And of course there was the day that would never come, when an African-American would be winning the first primary in a white state.”
In discussions about the speech, the issue of race never came up, Mr. Favreau said. But, he added, “I know I thought about it.”
As Senator Obama’s star has risen, so has Mr. Favreau’s. In New Hampshire, Mr. Favreau stood in the back of a gym watching his boss campaign when Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter to the current President Bush, introduced himself. He complimented him on the Iowa victory speech.
The campaign staff has started teasing Mr. Favreau about his newfound celebrity. Not that it’s any great pickup line. Mr. Favreau, who said he doesn’t have a girlfriend, observed somewhat dryly that “the rigors of this campaign have prevented any sort of serious relationship.”
“There’s been a few times when people have said, ‘I don’t believe you, that you’re Barack Obama’s speechwriter,’ ” he went on. “To which I reply, ‘If I really wanted to hit on you, don’t you think I’d make up something more outlandish?’ ”
He does have other things to worry about. “Can you get through this process and keep the core of yourself?” Mr. Favreau asked. “You know, we’re finding out. I’m confident he can. And I think I can, too.”