The mind reader in chief
With his first address to Congress looming, President Obama convened a few trusted advisors in the Oval Office.
Seated in a chair beside the fireplace, he turned his attention to a 27-year-old with close-cropped hair who was perched on the couch. His instructions, according to one meeting participant, were familiar: “You and I always tell a story pretty well. I still want to make sure we do that here.”
Behind a president defined more by his oratory than perhaps any political figure in a generation is chief speechwriter Jon Favreau. His work with Obama began almost as soon as the then-senator from Illinois arrived in Washington four years ago. He knows the president’s ideas, stories and rhythms so well that Obama has called him a mind reader.
Throughout the grueling, nearly two-year-long presidential campaign, Favreau lived a life of constant deadlines and caffeine-fueled late nights -- carrying as a ready reference Obama’s 1995 autobiography, “Dreams From My Father,” and committing to memory the 2004 Democratic Convention speech that introduced his boss to the country. Now he works one floor below the president, in a basement office in the West Wing.
Favreau, or “Favs” to his friends and co-workers, is the second-youngest person ever to work as chief White House speechwriter. Only James Fallows was younger, by a mere two months, when he started as Jimmy Carter’s top speechwriter.
Although Favreau works mostly out of the limelight, he had an unwelcome brush with celebrity in December after a Facebook photo surfaced of him at a party groping a cardboard cutout of then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- a bit of clowning for which he quickly apologized to Obama’s former rival, now secretary of State. More recently, Internet gossip sites reported that he was dating a former Maxim magazine model who works as an assistant in the White House.
He has played a role in such pivotal moments as Obama’s address on race, the New Hampshire primary concession speech that transformed a jarring defeat into a rallying point for the campaign, the forceful Democratic nomination acceptance address at a Denver stadium and the soaring affirmation of American possibility that Obama delivered in his election-night victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park.
After four drafts -- each returned to Favreau covered with handwritten edits from the president -- Obama’s recent address to the joint session of Congress proved far from the mishmash of ideas typical of an annual State of the Union speech.
Instead, what emerged was a story about how the country had fallen into economic crisis and how the new president envisioned climbing out of it, a narrative that made the case for an ambitious political agenda by connecting it to the struggles and anxieties of ordinary Americans. It almost immediately boosted the president in opinion polls and bolstered support for his program.
Obama has managed a political career that has taken full advantage of story lines, connecting his own narrative as the child of a mixed-race couple to the broader American story of expanding freedom and opportunity.
Storytelling is at the core of Obama’s public speaking, overriding the modern obsession with the sound bite. Favreau has explained their joint approach to friends simply: “Tell a story. That’s the most important part of every speech, more than any given line: Does it tell a story from beginning to end?”
The White House denied a request for an interview with Favreau. But aides said Obama’s speeches often begin with the president dictating his thoughts to Favreau and the speechwriter shaping them into a draft that the two men then pass back and forth.
With access to the president among the most valued resources in the White House, the importance Obama places on his oratory is apparent from his schedule. On most days, he meets with Favreau or other members of his speechwriting team to go over upcoming remarks.
“I’ve never worked for a politician who values words as much as the president does,” Obama senior advisor David Axelrod said. “The speechwriter is an unusually important person in the operation. [Obama’s] willingness to entrust his words to others is limited, and he wants to make sure the people who do write for him have an appreciation for how he thinks and how he wants to be presented.”
Favreau, a trained pianist who rented an electric baby grand for his apartment during his first speechwriting job for Sen. John F. Kerry’s presidential campaign, has a “musical” sense of language, Axelrod said.
“I call him Mozart, because he’s just this young, creative genius,” Axelrod said. Favreau and Obama alike “think in terms of the cadence of the words,” Axelrod added. “Not just the meaning of the words but . . . how they work together, how they sound together.”
In the less hectic days when Obama was a freshman senator, he and Favreau would banter over baseball: When the White Sox swept the Red Sox in the 2005 American League division playoffs, Obama walked over to the Massachusetts native’s desk with a broom.
Only a few presidents have had a long relationship with their chief writers before their election, most notably John F. Kennedy and Theodore Sorenson, a partnership that produced some of the most memorable modern political rhetoric, said Robert Schlesinger, author of “White House Ghosts: Presidents and their Speechwriters.”
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who had been on Kerry’s campaign staff, introduced Favreau and Obama over lunch shortly after the Illinois senator arrived in Washington. Disappointed and exhausted after Kerry’s 2004 defeat to President George W. Bush, Favreau was thinking about going to law school or trying his hand at screenwriting, several associates said.
Josh Porter, Favreau’s best friend since middle school, said: “I remember him calling me after the lunch. He said, ‘I’m staying here. This guy’s the real deal.’ ”
Favreau’s own public speaking career began at age 2, when according to his mother he was able to recite “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” from beginning to end -- with only a little prompting. She kept a tape for posterity.