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White House Wordsmith Works on State of the Union

Weinberg alum Cody Keenan expected to be named president's chief speechwriter

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February 6, 2013 | by Amy Weiss
Cody KeenanCody KeenanCody Keenan
Cody Keenan consults with President Obama. Photo by Pete Souza
Cody Keenan in the White House. Photo by Paul Fetters
Cody Keenan dresses as a pirate for the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Photo by Pete Souza

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University alumnus Cody Keenan, reported earlier this week by the Los Angeles Times to be named President Barack Obama’s head speechwriter, is busy crafting next week’s State of the Union address.

A key member of President Obama’s speechwriting team, the 2002 Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences graduate and Chicago native has worked for the president since Obama’s first presidential campaign.

Keenan himself gained national attention following the president’s remarks at the memorial honoring the victims of the massacre in Tucson in 2011.

After the memorial, reporters aboard Air Force One asked then-press secretary Robert Gibbs for the name of the writer who worked on the speech with the president.

“It’s C-O-D-Y K-E-E-N-A-N,” Gibbs said, spelling out Keenan’s name and referring to him as “a proud Northwestern fan.”

The speech called for the country to rise above political divisions following the shooting, which claimed the lives of six people, including a federal judge and 9-year-old girl, and wounded 13 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). 

“People were upset that the rhetoric and finger-pointing had gotten out of hand, and it felt like a moment for speaking to who we are as a nation and what we need to do,” Keenan said in a 2011 profile that ran in the Northwestern Weinberg alumni magazine Crosscurrents.

Keenan, who subscribes to the idea that speechwriters should possess “a passion for anonymity” found it difficult to hide after the Tucson speech. In the Crosscurrents profile, he tried to downplay his craftsmanship in the speech.  

“The truth is, President Obama rewrote a lot of it,” he said. “We (speechwriters) don’t always hit the sweet spot, but the president knocked that one out of the park. It was one of those moments that reminded me why I chose to work for him in the first place.”

After graduating from Northwestern, Keenan was a legislative aide for Senator Edward Kennedy for several years. He began working for President Obama as an intern in the summer of 2007 and, after completing a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2008, returned to the campaign.  

As a key member of the president’s speechwriting team, Keenan has focused on domestic policy, during tumultuous times, including the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession, health care reform and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“No one can ever imagine the crises that will happen when you’re working in the White House,” he said in Crosscurrents.  

Keenan’s humility and passion in his work will serve him well as his influence becomes greater than ever.

“It’s easy to get trapped inside the Washington bubble,” he said in Crosscurrents. “But if you forget why you wanted to do this in the first place, then the speech isn’t going to be worth anything.

“The bully pulpit may not be as big as it used to be, but we remember that this is the president of the United States, and his words have the power to convey emotion and inspire people to work towards a common goal. That’s something that will never change.”

Hari Sevugan, a fellow Northwestern alumnus and a former spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, summed up common sentiments about the president’s expected new chief speechwriter in a 2011 Chicago Tribune article:

"There isn't anyone I know who doesn't like Cody. He grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and he's salt of the earth."