Six years into the Obama presidency, I thought we'd finally run out of hotshot administration bros the political press could glowingly profile in exchange for future access to meaningless scooplets. I was wrong.
Yesterday, The New York Times introduced us to Cody "Hemingway" Keenan. The president has given him the nickname "Hemingway," not because he is an overrated drunk— though he may indeed be that—but because he writes and has a beard. Unlike Hemingway, who wrote novels and stories that people still revere decades after his death, Keenan writes speeches that the president delivers and that everyone promptly forgets, because modern political speeches are disposable garbage. Judging by this profile, though, no one seems to have explained that distinction to Keenan, his friends, or Times reporter Michael Schmidt.
Keenan is presented as a classic hardboiled writers' writer type. He drinks Scotch, like a man might do! He stares at a blank page, because writing is a difficult, solitary business. The words just won't come! But also sometimes he stays up until 5 a.m. hashing out speeches with his other writer friend, because the only thing more writerly than writing is writing with another writer. They drink Scotch. They write, writingly. They are The Single-malt Scotch Bastards of the White House.
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama will deliver his next-to-last State of the Union address from a text written, rewritten, revised and sweated over by Mr. Keenan. In all the policy pronouncements about tax increases on the rich and tax cuts for the middle class, Mr. Obama’s remarks are certain to address the struggles of ordinary Americans in some of the gritty, Everyman prose that has become Mr. Keenan’s trademark.
Ah, who can forget all those examples of President Obama delivering the "gritty, Everyman prose that has become Mr. Keenan's trademark." The president sounds like a regular Hank Chinaski these days, haven't you noticed?
"He reminds me of some of the folks I grew up with in the old days in Chicago journalism — those hard-bitten, big-hearted, passionate writers who brought the stories of people to life," said David Axelrod, a longtime adviser to Mr. Obama and a former newspaper reporter.
Axelrod, in the spirit of political communication, is using words to advance not a set of facts but an impression. I have no reason to doubt the size of Keenan's heart, or the force of his passion, but the Times helpfully provides a capsule biography on how "hard bitten" he is:
In fact, Mr. Keenan, born in Chicago, went to high school in the wealthy town of Ridgefield, Conn., in Fairfield County, where he threw more interceptions than touchdowns, voraciously read spy novels and was president of the student body. He graduated from Northwestern University, and rolled into Washington at the age of 21 with just a fraternity brother’s couch to crash on and a cocky attitude.
Right, yes, he is exactly what he appears to be: Another of the legion of frat boys who go to DC after college to begin careers in politics. If he in any way reminds you of an old-timey hardscrabble Chicago newspaperman, you have been in politics far too long, or you are blind and illiterate.
Modern political speechwriting is not a high-minded pursuit for brilliant talents. Aaron Sorkin should be shot into space for perpetuating this bullshit fantasy that still enamors hacks like Cody Keenan. Writing a 6,000-word presidential speech is a process that bears only a mechanical resemblance to writing 6,000 words meant to be read and appreciated by normal humans. Some political speechwriters may also happen to be good writers, but they would have to achieve success in a field other than political speechwriting to prove it. (Former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett, for example, is funny on Twitter and a good political columnist. Neither of those things were evident in his work as a speechwriter.)
I am not arguing that any untrained schmo off the street could write a State of the Union address. Modern political speechwriting is certainly a skill, and one that requires experience and practice to master. It is not, however, a literary endeavor. It is marketing, and not even particularly imaginative marketing. Advertising people who call themselves "creatives" do more actual creative work than political speechwriters. Do the people who write statements of risk for pharmaceutical ads walk around swishing single malt in tumblers and comparing themselves to The Lost Generation? (Well, they probably do, but they are wrong.)
Political speechwriting is an exercise in the proper arrangement of cliches and platitudes, with a bit of "messaging" of policy ideas to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Speeches like the one the president will deliver tonight are designed to deliver pleasant inanities (The State of the Union is Strong) and sell certain carefully audience-tested proposals as vaguely (or misleadingly) as possible. The State of the Union is less written than it is designed, structured and organized around applause prompts and camera cues.
Here, for example, is some of Keenan's hard-bitten, muscular prose, from a previous State of the Union address:
"Today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student who needed it, and did her part to lift America’s graduation rate to its highest level in more than three decades," Mr. Obama said in the opening lines of last year’s State of the Union address, written by Mr. Keenan.
The president went on: "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."
That is boilerplate State of the Union rhetoric. Do you know what it doesn't sound like? Good prose by a good author. Peggy Noonan could down two bottles of white wine and crank this kind of shit out in ten minutes before passing out. Paul Harvey would've been embarrassed to read this on the radio. It's a storyboarding session for a TV commercial. If you actually imagine those images, the first thing that comes to mind is a soothing voice rapidly reading pharmaceutical contraindications.
Because Barack Obama is himself actually a decent writer, and because he is a good orator who has delivered some memorable speeches, his speechwriters have been showered with attention since before he was even elected president. Jon Favreau got a similar Times profile during the 2008 campaign, one of the first of a flood that would be written about him until he left the White House for the more lucrative fields of consulting, speaking, and screenwriting.
It's not even limited to the Obama bros. John McCain had his own ersatz Hemingway in longtime aide Mark Salter—who at least ghostwrote McCain's books, something that more closely resembles literary writing than preparing campaign speeches or Senate addresses. Salter was the recipient of numerous profiles during the 2008 campaign. ("Salter, 53, comes by his love of grit and combat honestly.")
It probably all dates back to the cult of Kennedy, and JFK's partnership with Ted Sorensen. But political rhetoric has inarguably declined in literary quality since the 1960s about as much as it had already declined, by then, since the 18th and 19th centuries. No one currently involved in speechwriting is ever going to craft a Lincoln's Second Inaugural or a Washington's Farewell Address, because speeches of that nature are not considered effective political communication in the 21st century. Modern speechwriters are certainly not doing anything comparable to writing deathless fiction about the realities of the American experience, because it would be weird if a politician delivered stark observations on the human condition instead of trying to make himself appear more acceptable than his political opponents to people who pay attention to presidential speeches once a year.
Tonight's State of the Union might be an effective speech, but it definitely won't be a good one.
[Image by Jim Cooke, original photo via Getty]