Speaking to the Nation

The craft of the American story

by Sam Tezak; illustration by Emma Kearney

On July 27th 2004, a young black civil rights attorney hailing from the classrooms of University of Chicago Law School and the chambers of the Illinois Senate dusted the chalk off his jacket and took the podium.  

He addressed the audience as the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention under the Fleet Center dome in Boston, Mass. 

“Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely.” 

Over nine million individuals watched this speech, which The Washington Post distinguished as historical, stating: “Then the next ten years happened.” What followed was a twenty-minute oration that wove together Aristotle’s rhetorical modes of persuasion—ethos, pathos and logos––and the ragged edges of the America stories into a garb of hope to be donned by the common man. The Democratic Party would remember these words as the rising political star swept the nation with his smooth cadence and rhetoric. In the same speech, future President Barack Obama introduced one of his signature motifs: the American Story.

“They stand here—and I stand here today, grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents’ dreams live on in my two precious daughters. I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me and that, in no other country on Earth, is my story even possible.”

Gray-haired and a decade older, President Obama stood on a podium in front of a joint session of the U.S. Congress to deliver his annual State of the Union address. With a bottle of wine in hand, my political enthusiast friend and I half-drunkenly schmoozed while watching the 44th president wink, grin and tell America’s story. 

President Obama has distinguished himself as an excellent orator and writer. Time and time again, he jaunts up to the podium, confident in his crafted word—or, at least, in his speechwriters’ crafted words. Although President Obama has authored three books, most notably “Dreams of My Father,” his cabinet of elite speechwriters continues to be responsible for capturing the media’s interest and arguably the nation’s ear. 31.7 million Americans out of the 321 million-person population are estimated to have watched the State of the Union this year. 

The first speechwriter to capture the nation’s ear was freshman advisor Jon Favreau, a hot-shot valedictorian from Holy Cross turned political speech guru who achieved celebrity status after photos leaked of him groping a cardboard cutout of opponent Hilary Clinton. Favreau would later make TIME’s “Top 100 Most Influential People of the Year” after he moved to California and was caught shirtless at a restaurant playing beer pong. Having moved on from Favreau, President Obama tapped deputy Cody Keenan. Known as “Hemingway” for his sporadic facial hair and status as a writer, Keenan eschewed groping cardboard cutouts of the Secretary of State in favor of drinking single-malt Scotch in solitude and writing in only monosyllabic words, in clear contrast to John McCain’s third-grade reading-level speeches. “Hemingway’s” speeches explore the grit and hard work of the American people. He first caught the attention of the American public in 2011 when he flew with the president on Air Force One to deliver a memorial speech for the people killed and injured, including Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, in an assassination attempt that summer. 

Keenan’s “everyman’s-story” speeches are vastly different from those of his predecessor, who focused primarily on the “hope” and “change” themes that carried the President into the beginning of his second term in office. This noticeable shift in the American story is evident when comparing the chest-thumping 2008 rally cry, “Yes, we can!” with Obama’s tone in his Inaugural Address,  

“This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that’s on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She’s a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election, except for one thing: Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old. She was born just a generation past slavery, a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky, when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons—because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.”

 After six years leading an administration that faced what became the longest war the United States fought on foreign soil, not to mention wrangling with the most allegedly difficult Congress since the Do-Nothing Congress of 1947 to 1949, Obama’s storyline has shifted. So have his speechwriters.

Obama’s speeches have transformed from the hope arousing “Yes we can” to a slow, gravelly tone meant to assuage the worries of an exhausted nation that has barely survived a gauntlet of political, economic and cultural strains. In Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address, speechwriter Keenan muses on small celebrations, as opposed to the tree ring sample representations of growth:

“A farmer prepared for the spring after the strongest five-year stretch of farm exports in our history. A rural doctor gave a young child the first prescription to treat asthma that his mother could afford.  A man took the bus home from the graveyard shift, bone-tired but dreaming big dreams for his son.”

Again, in the 2015 Inaugural Address, he writes: 

“Seven years ago, Rebekah and Ben Erler of Minneapolis were newlyweds. She waited tables. He worked construction. Their first child, Jack, was on the way. They were young and in love in America, and it doesn’t get much better than that.” 

Hoo-rah, Mr. Obama. I could’ve sworn that was the introductory monologue to “American Sniper.” In the same vein as many of his speeches, Obama revisits the good ol’ American story: “We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times. America, Rebekah and Ben’s story is our story.” 

As seemingly charming as these stories are, it is critical to recognize the mechanics behind these speeches and their intended impact on the general public. Although the president typically receives high confidence ratings following speeches such as this, these ratings are from the people actually watching his speech, who are largely comprised of members of his own party. With 10 percent of America tuning into the State of the Union and other presidential addresses, these speeches have virtually no effect on the President’s approval ratings. 

That being said, Obama’s speeches are cathartic—rendered to an 8th grade reading level, they can be impactful on the average, working-class American, with whom they resonate.

I don’t suggest that the bully pulpit has been dumbed down but, rather, democratized. More and more Americans have access to television and the Internet, making these addresses available at any time. 

These speechwriters are known to den up in the clichés of coffee shops and wood-paneled rooms brimming with single-malt scotch, fireplace talks and solitude as they execute their mastery over the language of the people—all at an 8th grade reading level. The lines of a master speechwriter are tweaked to cadence and market boorish platitudes so general that no one could possibly disagree with them. Unless, of course, that person sits right behind the President, red-faced and unable to clap his hands. Of course, the average American is not John Boehner. 

In a “National Public Radio” interview about the rhythm of Obama’s speeches, Favreau admits that the beats of each line are strategically planned. These incantatory four iamb lines in the President’s victory speech at the Iowa caucuses in 2008, “they said this day would never come,” would slowly build up and crescendo into a crowd-fueled chorus, “Yes we can.” Though Obama’s introductory paragraph in his 2015 State of the Union did not have the same defining meter as his “Yes we can” speech, a certain poetic rhythm and off rhyme carried the calculated 52 word, 72 syllable introduction. 

These rhetorical and poetic tools, as well as a frank understanding of reading levels in the United States, contribute greatly to the speeches that President Obama and his team of pen-brandishing speechwriters construct. This method ultimately reflects a keen awareness of the voice of the American people, harnessing an elite collegiate understanding of rhetoric and marrying it with a sentiment the regular Joe or Jane will understand. 

Beyond the cumbersome prose, manipulated cadence, shared platitudes and ambiguous promises of policy reforms prominent in modern political speak, we give speeches a particular seat of importance. Whether we agree, disagree, find hope or cynicism in the leader’s words, we actively participate in the greater American story when we watch these oratory performances. Personal anecdotes wrap us in the blanket of the American story—one sewn together by the visions of speechwriters and politicians. That being said, even as viewers, we have agency in the American story. During these speeches, we enter in communion with our leaders. It is for this custom we return season after season—some cynical, some ready, some depressed, some ambivalent—to turn on the television, tune in to CNN and realize that no matter how much we may agree or disagree with the speaker on the podium, we are still a part of this story.