'We were living through the opposite of grace'. Obama’s former speechwriter reflects on time White House.


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A truly great speech can change the world. We all know Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream.”

As we reflect on King’s legacy, MPR News is revisiting a conversation about a memorable speech from 2015.

In June 2015, President Barack Obama sang Amazing Grace during a eulogy for a Black reverend killed in a horrific hate crime. Last fall, MPR News host Angela Davis spoke with President Obama’s chief speechwriter Cody Keenan about that moment.


  • Cody Keenan was the Senior Advisor and Director of Speechwriting for former President Barack Obama. He is the author of the new book “Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America”

Here are five key moments from the conversation.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Click the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

Why write about those memories now?

Cody Keenan: There are two answers to that. The first is I was still working for President Obama until last year, so I didn't feel right to write a book that was largely about him while I was on his payroll. The second is I think the book it's timeless and to be honest, it's it was the Trump years that actually solidified the book in my mind. When we were living through those 10 days in the White House, it became clear in retrospect, that we were living through the opposite of grace. I first thought up the idea for the book in 2017 and I just let it marinate for a while until it crystallized, and I was ready to sit down and write it.

Obama was into it. He's still working on the second volume of his memoirs, which will cover these 10 days. So he said, “just don't take all my good stuff.” To give him a draft of any speech is frightening enough, to give him a draft of my book was completely terrifying. But I also knew he's competitive, so I knew he'd want to read something about himself and he read it pretty quickly and responded with some very nice words and just one edit to the entire book that made it better.

Could you share the story about writing a State of the Union address for Barack Obama?

Cody Keenan: running the State of the Union address is something every young speechwriter dreams of doing until you actually do it. We would always sit down every year and say we're going to do it differently but you just don't quite get there. So I sent him my draft eight days early. Everything was in there. I was really proud of it. He said: “it's great in that, we're in the best shape we've ever been in a week out, but we still have a week, so we can make it better. The entire speech is at a 10, but I need some quiet moments, some emotional moments. “You ever listened to Miles Davis?”, he said. “The thing about Miles Davis is the notes he doesn't play. It's the silence. So tonight, I want you to go home, don't do any work, pour yourself a drink and listen to some Miles Davis. And then come back here tomorrow and find me some silences.”

The centerpiece of that State of the Union address was a young woman from Minneapolis named Rebeka, who had written a letter to the president in 2014. It was about her life, her family's life and what they've been through since the great recession. We wrote the speech around Rebecca's letter, and the President spent a good 10 minutes in the speech, telling her story and tying it to specific policies that would help, and it was just beautiful.

Tell us the story about writing the eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney

Cody Keenan: That was one of the more difficult ones we had. There was a lot of drama that week about whether or not Obama would give the eulogy at all. He didn't want to, and I didn't want to write it. It was actually because we had done 14 eulogies after mass shootings. It was the families and what they did by forgiving the killer that made him give the eulogy. Watching those families was extraordinarily both painful and hopeful, and I really struggled through writing it. We had a pretty heated debate in the Oval Office about whether or not to do it. And when he finally agreed to do it, he told me: “Talk about guns, talk about race, talk about the Confederate flag, and wrap it all up in grace.”

I had written the phrase “Amazing Grace” in the eulogy and then he added the lyrics and built the entire second half of the speech, which is more of a sermon than a eulogy around the lyrics to Amazing Grace. So, right after he spoke in the Rose Garden on Friday morning, we boarded the helicopter five minutes later to go to Andrews Air Force Base. He was still working on the eulogy, and he handed it back to me. When we landed, he stood up and said: “you know if it feels right, I might sing it.” And that hadn't even occurred to me.

What do you think Barack Obama wanted to communicate by singing?

Cody Keenan: It's this leap of faith that he took to expose himself in that way. I wouldn't know that this was an AME church service. It just happened to be in an arena at a eulogy. And he knew that they would be there to join him and sing and you could hear how the whole band jumped. It was just a remarkable moment. How often does the entire country see a Black church service with a Black president adopting a preacher’s cadence tying together American exceptionalism and progressive theory? As soon as I saw him take the stage and saw everybody there, I just knew he was gonna sing. There was no question.

Credit: MNSBC

Tell us about your perspective on American politics

There's the story of America as a story of progress and backlash to that progress. And one of the reasons I wrote this book was that those 10 days were just this extraordinary burst of progress. The progress belonged to people who had marched and organized for decades for universal health care, marriage equality, for all these things. Progress is fragile, it takes a long, time and it's very easy to undo. It's much easier to destroy than it is to build.

We're living through one of those times of backlash. The country is still changing rapidly, I think for the better, but a lot of people don't share that sentiment. The thesis of this book I took from President Obama's speech in Selma in 2015, on the 50th anniversary of the marches from Selma to Montgomery, and it says: “Selma was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills”, and I just apply that to our politics. Are we a country that stands up for our founding ideals and tries to make them real in our time? I think it'd be better to finally live up to our obligations to be a truly multiracial, multi-everything democracy.

Your questions

Listeners called into the show and asked some questions. Here is a couple of them.

What was your experience, particularly about race? Amy from Roseville

Cody Keenan: To write on race I wanted to make sure that whatever draft I gave him, did right by him, I didn't want to make a fool of myself. You know, even as a white progressive, you can think you're on the right side of every issue, but you haven't necessarily lived the same life as your audience. There are limits to empathy. I'll never know what it's like to be a Black man in America. And for all the things that Barack Obama and I have in common: we're from different parts of Chicago that are just a few miles away, but worlds apart.

Fortunately, even though I was the chief speechwriter, he was our chief speechwriter. I would sit down with him on the front end and prod him with questions, trying to understand what he wants to say and why. But the reason these were more difficult is that you knew that audiences wanted to hear certain things from him, and sometimes they would be diametrically opposed to what other audiences wanted to hear. Part of the challenge of writing about race is just we can do our best and we may not get quite there, that was all him.

As you wrote for the President, did you hear in your mind the president speaking notes words? — Pat from Duluth

Cody Keenan: My first two years as a speechwriter for him as a junior speechwriter. I didn't meet him until we were in the Oval Office. You only get inside someone's head and understand their voice after working with them one on one closely, and it took me some to understand him and hear him in my head. And yes, when I would write, I could hear him in my head, I could hear his cadence.

I teach speech writing now at Northwestern University, and I tell my students to read it out loud because that's the whole point of it. A speech is meant to be delivered, you will hear in your head, and the President was good at this. He would practice on the day of a big speech and he'd say: “that sentence needs one more syllable or one less syllable.” It gets to the point where, once you're past the big picture edits, you're working it into sheet music.

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