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Northwestern Grad Channels the President's Words

Alumnus Cody Keenan reflects on transition to top spot as Obama's speechwriter

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May 9, 2013
Cody Keenan consults with President Obama. Photo by Pete Souza

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern alum Cody Keenan, President Barack Obama's new chief speechwriter, is helping Obama tell the most important story -- and greatest challenge -- of his second term: how to restore opportunity to the middle class and prosperity to America.

The 2002 Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences graduate sees echoes of his own family in that struggle, along with the dreams of generations who came before, believing that if they worked hard, they too could "make something of themselves and leave something better for their kids.”

We recently caught up with Keenan, 32, who reflected on Northwestern University's influence on his journey to the White House, mentioning a political science class on the presidency and other coursework that he draws upon for his work today. He spoke with particular fondness about his fraternity brothers, whom he still talks with daily. 

With Obama since the beginning of his presidency, Keenan was one of seven speechwriters to join the White House in 2009.

A native Chicagoan, he made sure he would pen the president's remarks for the 1985 Chicago Bears visit to the White House, and, citing his Irish-American heritage, Keenan talked about the great fun he had working on the president's Dublin speech.

But the speech that brought Keenan out of the shadows was delivered by the president in 2011 at a Tucson memorial honoring victims of gun violence. Keenan won wide acclaim for the address' eloquence and healing tone. 

In his transition to the job as top speechwriter early this year, Keenan’s first big assignment was one of the president's biggest draws, the State of the Union address. 

Read below Amy Weiss' interview with fellow alumnus Keenan, about what he has to say about the State of the Union, the challenges that lie ahead in the president’s second term and much more.

How has your experience at Northwestern influenced you in your work at the White House? 

Well, I think it's safe to say having a good foundation of political science and history courses has helped along the way. Patricia Conley's course on the presidency certainly stands out as useful, though I never imagined I'd end up in the White House those mornings I raced through the snow to get to class on time. I still draw upon coursework in economics, literature and religion, too. But I'd say that my fraternity brothers are actually the most lasting legacy of my time at Northwestern. I talk with them on a daily basis. They've shaped my journey as much as anything. I celebrate their successes as much as I'd celebrate any of my own. They're a bit further along on the marriage and family front, though this line of work doesn't always lend itself to that!

What has it been like working on the State of the Union address? 

The State of the Union address is typically the biggest audience the president will have all year.  It lays out America's agenda for the next year, the next four years and beyond. So more than any other speech, the State of the Union is a team effort. Dozens of people are involved, from policy staff to research staff to economic and national security experts. Other writers contribute arguments, ideas and turns of phrase. The president is personally involved from inception through the final draft -- he'll probably go through six or seven drafts and edit each one.

Obviously, you have to deal with a lot of very heavy and important material, but what speech or project has been the most fun to work on?

Oh, that's easy. I made sure to assign myself the remarks for the day the '85 Chicago Bears visited the White House. And as we wrote them up, the president contributed a lot of his own memories. Like the president, I'm a Chicagoan and a rabid Bears fan. But unlike other teams, the '85 Bears never got to visit the White House after winning the Super Bowl. The Challenger explosion happened a day or two before they were supposed to visit. About 25 years later, someone at the NFL put two and two together and figured that, with a Bears fan in the Oval Office, it was a good time to give the greatest team in NFL history its due.  

And as a proud Irish-American, I'd also say working with the president on his speech in Dublin and for the various St. Patrick's Day events each year have been a lot of fun. Work is always more fun when your projects and your passions align, right? 

As your new role coincides with the president’s new term, what are you most looking forward to?

Our work hasn't changed. The economy may no longer be in immediate crisis, but the longer-term project of restoring middle-class opportunity goes on. I look at this through the lens of my own family's story. My grandfathers served in World War II and came home to raise families. My father's in booming Los Angeles, my mother's in rural Indiana. My parents were some of the first in their families to go to college. They met in New York City, and they built successful careers for themselves in Chicago. So, naturally, my sister and I grew up expecting that we would go to college and build careers and stable families, too. Why shouldn't everyone grow up with the belief that they can make something of themselves and leave something better for their kids? Why shouldn't everyone have that chance? How do we restart that great middle-class engine? That's what this country must be about. That's our biggest challenge.

You were featured in a Northwestern magazine article about “Wildcats in the White House.” Do you ever get a chance to work with or catch up with any fellow alumni in the halls of the west wing or around D.C.?

There are a few in the White House. There are also several alums from other Big Ten schools, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, etc.  So there's no shortage of trash talking in the west wing during football season.

- This article was written by Amy Weiss.