Obama’s chief White House speechwriter and post-presidential collaborator gives an insider’s view in latest book
During the fractious campaign months leading up to the mid-term elections in November 2022, I found myself reaching repeatedly for safe havens. Like many people I spoke to, I longed for shelter, retreat or escape from the morality-depleting, brutal and often dangerous political scene that to me showcased the noisiest candidates—and sadly, some citizens and a majority of elected officials—who spoke and acted as if blindfolded to reason and deaf to truth about their responsibilities to voters and government’s role in general.
In my imagination, I fancifully pictured candidates in every pocket of the arena egging each other on as they wrestled to subdue greasy wild turkeys while balancing on wax-coated fences. But it was hardly a wild playground scene or a bizarre theme park adventure, with democracy, reason, science, justice, good judgment and plain old decency and civility at risk.
Unexpectedly, I found solace and even tremendous hope in Grace, a book deeply embedded in politics. Written by Cody Keenan, former President Barack Obama’s chief White House speechwriter and post-presidential collaborator, Grace is both Keenan’s memoir and a historical account of remarkable events that occurred during 10 days in June 2015.
Included in the less-than-two-week time period were the “highs” of Supreme Court rulings: one in support of the marriage equality act, thereby protecting the lives and love of LGBTQ and all Americans, and a second decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act commonly known as Obamacare, thus guaranteeing health insurance for all working Americans. Confederate flags and monuments in public spaces were being removed during those 10 days, marking additional steps toward equality with small, but significant measures of restitution to atone for the country’s great crime of slavery and the erasure of Black history in America.
Along with the exhilarating rulings and removal of symbols heralding slavery, there was one lowest of all lows: a mass shooting carried out by a white nationalist in a Black church in Charleston, SC. The unspeakable tragedy at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015 resulted in the death of the congregation’s senior priest and eight worshipers. The shooter, Dylann Roof, had previously been welcomed by the Bible study group when he showed up in their midst at the church that evening. They had no idea he brought with him an arsenal of firearms and bullets and, in his heart, he carried white supremacist hate, anger, rage, violence and lethal intent.
Without diminishing the extreme importance of Roof’s capture, trial, conviction and sentencing (he was sentenced to death in January 2017 and to life in prison without parole in April of the same year), the despicable low became miraculously high and unforgettable when the relatives of the Emanuel church victims stood up one by one in the courtroom, offering forgiveness to Roof. While still calling for justice to be served, they forgave the man who had murdered their mothers, sons and grandfathers.
Grace tells the inside story of events within the Oval Office and the fierce debates over whether or not Obama should go to Charleston to speak at the memorial service. Fatigued and infuriated by yet another mass shooting and little traction on gun control legislation, the president was initially resistant. Ultimately, he decided to not only attend, but to deliver the eulogy. Thus began the arduous process Keenan, Obama and the team pursued for all speechwriting and public presidential appearances.
What is learned is telling: Keenan’s trepidation as “a white kid from the North Side of Chicago” to write legitimately about race for the country’s first Black president reached a fever peak: the escalated temperature of all-night speechwriting vigils that occurred on a regular basis in “The Speechcave,” a bland, fluorescent-lit suite of offices near the Oval Office, as well as the number of women who held under-the-radar positions in the Obama administration—among them Kristen Bartolini, Keenan’s then-fiancée and later, his wife—who played pivotal roles in Obama’s every move during this and other times.
Readers grow to better understand the relationship between Barack and Michell Obama as a married couple and what constituted their values as the parents of two teenage girls. Repeatedly, it is seen in Keenan’s dramatic firsthand accounts and thriller-style narrative how Obama’s intense work ethics and immense gifts as a writer and editor elevated everyone to higher levels. It also left Keenan to write, “To be a speechwriter for Barack Obama is f*cking terrifying.”
Keenan confesses that in his early days writing for Obama, “it could be crushing to see his edits across the page, his neat penmanship squeezed between paragraphs and along margins, thin lines surgically connecting his additions to the precise places he wanted them sewn in, each one a scalpel to my own self-confidence.” But over time, he came to realize the value and purpose of Obama’s unusually close scrutiny of each speech draft.
“His edits meant he liked a draft enough to engage with it, to help push it in the right direction. What he wanted from us, as his team of speechwriters, was a creative partnership, a collaboration where we could make each other better. Where we could take each other to places we couldn’t reach alone,” he writes.
Of course, as history reveals, the prepared text for Charleston and the portrait Obama painted in words as he eulogized Rev. Clementa Pinckney and spoke of the eight church members who also lost their lives were not the event’s most controversial and moving moment. Nor were his oratorical calls for resistance to gun violence in general and stark words on the evils of racism and police violence acted out specifically on Black and brown bodies in America what drew national and even international attention.
What stirred the audience of roughly 5,500 mostly African Americans in the College of Charleston TD Arena to rise to their feet and issue exclamations of praise, what lit a flame in the hearts of people worldwide who watched the service from afar, was the president singing one simple, well-known song.
Issuing the words, “Amazing Grace,” Obama then paused in silence. Keenan writes, “Eleven seconds went by. It was a moment of genuine drama. Was he making up his mind? Was he going to take the leap of faith? I wondered what people who were watching must be thinking: Had he lost his place? Then he began to sing.”
When Obama was done singing and the people in the arena had quieted, Keenan describes the scene and quotes Obama’s closing words (appearing here in italics):
Clementa Pinckney found that grace.
Cynthia Hurd found that grace.
Susie Jackson found that grace.
Ethel Lance found that grace.
DePayne Middleton-Doctor found that grace.
Tywanza Sanders found that grace.
Daniel L. Simmons Sr. found that grace.
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton found that grace.
Myra Thompson found that grace.
“The congregation applauded through it all, saluting each victim with a “Yeah!” Keenan recalls. “Obama had wisely kept the final paragraph of the eulogy short and tight. He knew people wouldn’t return to their seats. The organ kept playing as he spoke, fingers flying over keys. May grace now lead them home. And may God continue to shed His grace on the United States of America.”
Dozens of reasons can be named why this book raised and continues to uplift my spirits during an era when personal legacy-making and ego seem to be the main drivers of politics and politicians. The Obama years—without denying what was inarguably a president and administration that were far from perfect—illustrate to me a time when the prevailing White House atmosphere was energized by high principles and work was channeled into purposeful, passionate pursuits of justice and equality for all people.
There was a commitment to grueling jobs, to a federal government that cared about and provided the means for 10 million Americans to obtain health insurance and protected love unions of all kinds. There was a leader and a team exhaustively devoted to meeting both work and family responsibilities—and honest enough to admit failures while never using them as excuses not to try harder and do better the next time.
And on Nov. 11, 2020, there was an infant born to Keenan and his wife. The book ends with Keenan’s final words: “We named her Grace.”
In early 2023, there remains the echo in my ears of Obama singing that song, It is a song acknowledging our common human frailty that reminds me the only way the threads of life might stay entwined is to no longer be blind to truth and to see love, act with forgiveness and shout praise for the most precious gift of all, the opportunity for grace.