“A Promised Land”: A Speechwriter’s Take

"As someone who was once a White House staffer, I thought the way [Obama] captured the flavor of staff meetings ... were the best portraits I've ever read of political life as it really is."

In the days when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was churning out books under his name just about every year, some people wondered how he could write so fast.

“Ha. Gingrich,” one Washington writer said. “He hasn’t read half the books he’s written.”

Whether for books or speeches, politicians often insist on keeping writers anonymous. So it’s not surprising that reporters asked whether Barack Obama actually wrote A Promised Land, the 700-page first installment of his presidential memoir released last month.

He did. Do I have any inside knowledge? No. But if he didn’t, he wouldn’t dare tweak Michelle Obama for her ghosted memoir, Becoming. “I’m writing mine myself,” he’s let reporters hear several times, an invitation for fury from her and leaks from the writer if that was a lie.

Besides, once you start reading the book, you find chapter after chapter is so filled with intimate detail, description of Obama’s often irreverent thoughts, arguments with Michelle, and ridicule of the absurdities of political life. No president would hand those off to a ghost.

Obama has never been reluctant to acknowledge his writers. In this time when less than a third of U.S. Senators even list their speechwriters on staff directories, he not only praises Jon Favereau (“inspired”) and Ben Rhodes (“immense talents”);they become characters in the book.

Obama’s openness is one signal that his account will be unlike any presidential—or political—memoir we’ve ever read. “I wanted to offer readers a sense of what it’s like to be President of the United States, he writes in the Preface …” to pull the curtain back a bit…” 

Which he does. Sometimes dramatic, sometimes reflective, sometimes anecdotal with scenes using dialogue, swearing included—he clearly kept a journal— we see him worried, self-critical, jubilant and reflective, confident and insecure, and revealing.

Does he reveal anything speechwriters can learn? A few things. The prose echoes stylistic devices that have been Obama signatures. Like these:

Alliteration: In a passage about foreign policy, he writes, “how power can corrupt and fear compound.” Or, after a meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, “once … one of the most powerful people on earth,” he writes of the “fleeting, fickle nature of public life.”

Antithesis: A signature approach in Obamaspeak ever since the 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote that made him famous, here it is again. “Even if I hadn’t always been at my best, they’d divined what was best in me.”

Rhetorical Questions: Questions keep listeners paying attention. They also give us a window into the way Obama, outwardly so assured, was often consumed by doubt.

Was I prepared to be a world leader? Did I have the diplomatic skills, the knowledge and stamina, the authority to command?

Repetition: By that I mean what is usually the repetition Aristotle called anaphora. Beginning each sentence the same way Martin Luther King did in 1963. Speechwriters know that in speech repetition is the source of power. It lets speakers build in intensity, carrying the crowd along. That is why Obama used it so often in speeches—and in this book

It was the America of Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers making dreams take flight, and Jackie Robinson stealing home. It was Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan. Billy Holiday at the Village V—all those misfits who took the scraps that others overlooked … It was the America of Lincoln at Gettysburg … It was the Constitution and the Bill of Rights…

We also see other traits we remember from his speeches—his use of story, of the concrete detail that can bring to life a problem —and solution ; his readiness to concede at least one point.

But the techniques and tropes of speech are only a small part of what make A Promised Land so unusual. Paragraph for paragraph, this book is better than his speeches. I don’t just mean that it offers the nuance and richness of detail possible only in a 700-page book. Of course that’s true.

It’s also better because there are sides of Obama we have never seen before, which he describe with excruciating candor.

In part, he’s free to be candid because he is no longer president. But plenty of presidents have written memoirs. We don’t see the glimpses of family life, or the microscopic accounts of policy disputes  we see in A Promised Land. Here Obama doesn’t pretend admiration for opponents, or conceal self-doubts. His day-by-day narration of  the way he wrestled with the economic collapse that elected him, and the debate over the health care plan that bore his name, make both sections remarkable. Obama shows us what he was thinking at the time, the interplay of his beliefs with his personality, the ways principle must give way to reality—and the mistakes he made. And he makes no concession to readers who don’t want to know the intricacies of policy. Finishing Chapter 17 I finally understood what Obamacare was about—and I cared about that issue. 

Incredibly, some reviewers saw such detail as a fault. They were impatient with his description of how to approach meetings or offer background, or give us a sense of the infinite steps you take before moving a bill to the floor.

“He trusts in process as much as principle,” wrote one. “He’s immersed more in thought than action,” wrote another, telling us he “overdoes the history lesson.”

No. There are political novels. But politics itself is not a novel. This is not “West Wing,” where Allison Janney and Brad Whitford solve a problem with twenty seconds of snappy dialogue, walking back from the Oval Office. Anyone who has spent time in political life knows that it’s through process and, yes, “thought” that you further principle. Obama does readers a favor by presenting the interplay of principle with the possible, in a compelling way. 

As someone who was once a White House staffer, I thought the way he captured the flavor of staff meetings, and the painfully slow steps you need to pass a bill were the best portraits I’ve ever read of political life as it really is. He makes drama from the tedious business of solving an economy teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, or winning agreement on a health care bill for a hundred million Americans.  

And here is what I think is the greatest virtue of A Promised Land: the times he shows himself admitting doubt. One example: what he felt after his famous statement about voters who “cling to guns or religion.” “Even today I want to take that sentence back,” Obama writes. “I still brood about this string of poorly chosen words.”

Is there a lesson in this? Some way speechwriters could approach our work to make speeches more nuanced and honest?

At first, I didn’t think so. The very things that make A Promised Land good—its honest portrayal of how legislation gets passed, the way Obama lets us see inside his head during a negotiation, his thumbnail portraits of people in his cabinet and those on the other side, the way he really felt after the economic plan or Affordable Care Act fall into place—are the very things no president would delegate to others.

Take his thumbnail portraits of those on the other side of the aisle.

“As usual, John McCain had difficulty coming up with a coherent response.”

On McConnell: “He had no close friends in the Caucus, nor did he have any strong convictions.”

Or even his allies: “Nancy Pelosi wasn’t a particularly good speaker.” (Meaning how she spoke, not her role as Speaker.)

Or his reflections now on, for example, the economic recovery? “I wonder if I should have been bolder. The thought nags at me.”

Or how he castigates himself for the 2010 midterm results: “I had failed to rally the nation.”

One of the best written sections covers the Middle East. “The Israel of the 1960s that remained lodged in the popular imagination with its communal kibbutz living … was no longer the plucky David surround by hostile Goliaths,” writes Obama, admitting what he could never have written–or uttered- at the time. “Our diplomats find themselves in the awkward position of having to defend Israel for actions that we ourselves opposed.”

Such passages, honest, sometimes acerbic, sometimes harshly self-critical, are what make the book so unique. Even the most moving presidential speeches are too intertwined with the need for compromise, build coalitions, inspire listeners, cement alliances—and keep secrets. Some truths will have to wait.

On the other hand, is there nothing we can apply to the speeches writers create, whether in politics or out? I changed my mind somewhat, as I read. I felt that even with the constraints of political, or corporate, or other arenas, there should be ways, at least around the edges,  to show issues as more complex than we do.

I certainly felt that way as I read his final chapter. It’s about the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Obama tells it from his own point of view. It offers us a remarkable portrait of what such moments entail.

Of course, there was a jubilant mood after the announcement. But Obama wonders.

Was that unity of effort, that sense of common purpose, possible only when the goal involved killing a terrorist? The question nagged at me. … [T]he truth was that I hadn’t felt the same exuberance as I had on the night the health care bill passed. The fact that we could no longer imagine uniting the country around anything other than thwarting attacks and defeating external enemies, I took as a measure of how far my presidency still fell short of what I wanted it to be—and how much work I had left to do.

Naturally, he can’t just ruminate. He needs to make a speech. He sits down with Ben Rhodes, outlines some thoughts, and sends him off to write. Rhodes is back in less than two hours.

“As usual, Ben had taken my stray thoughts and crafted a fine speech,” Obama writes. He stands, claps Ben on the back, says “Good job, brother,” and heads for the teleprompter.

Brother! I take it back. He reminds us that what we speechwriters create doesn’t fall into a vacuum. Sometimes speechwriters and our bosses can forge a partnership, capture what they want, and bring more clarity to what listeners need. A Promised Land mostly describes what has happened. But the warmth Obama feels even towards his writers shows us what, at least sometimes, becomes possible. 

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Former Chief Speechwriter for Vice-President al Gore , longtime speechwriter Bob Lehrman is author of seven books, including several award-winning novels. He wrote The Political Speechwriter’s Companion, now, in a Second Edition, by him and Eric Schnure, and writes  often on politics.

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