The brain behind Obama’s speeches
A president governs in prose, but every now and then some poetry slips through.
Speaking in West Virginia after an explosion killed 29 coal miners, President Obama talked about the victims: “Most days they would emerge from the dark mine, squinting at the light. Most days, they would emerge, sweaty, dirty, dusted with coal. Most days, they would come home. Most days, but not that day.”
The words came from Adam Frankel, a young White House speechwriter. Over the last 20 months he has developed a niche in death and disaster, a specialist in language that assuages grief.
“The first thing we do when prominent people pass away, after we mourn their losses, is we call in Adam to begin work on the appropriate remarks,” said White House senior advisor David Axelrod.
Frankel has written speeches for the president honoring police officers killed on duty. He wrote the eulogy that Obama gave for Sen. Robert C. Byrd. And when Obama was asked to make remarks at the funeral service for civil rights activist Dorothy Height, Frankel got the assignment.
He began working for Obama’s presidential campaign in 2007, alongside speechwriters Jon Favreau and Ben Rhodes. They were deemed brilliant when Obama was winning caucuses. Now, with the president’s approval rating plummeting, the White House faces mounting scrutiny and speechwriters aren’t immune. A president who rose to office on the strength of his eloquence is facing criticism for delivering speeches that lack memorable turns of phrase — speeches that fail to inspire people to listen and act on what they hear.
Frankel brushes off the critique. He describes an Obama speech as a reasoned argument that hangs together from start to finish. Points build on one another in logical sequence. Swap in a spicy phrase just to get a headline and the speech falls apart.
“I once helped a political figure whose aide said to me that speeches should be sound bites slung together,” Frankel said. “What I admire about Obama in terms of his rhetoric is his insistence on preserving the integrity of a speech as a speech. Not jamming in sound bites…if they don’t work.”
With oval-rim glasses and closed-cropped brown hair, Frankel, a Princeton graduate, seems older than 29. He speaks softly and favors conservative suits and ties.
He comes from a family with deep roots in Washington politics and government. His father worked for the United Nations in Washington and still does consulting work for U.N. agencies. His great uncle is former FCC Chairman Newton Minow, who in a speech gave one of the most searing indictments of television, calling it “a vast wasteland.”
Paternal grandfather Stanley Frankel wrote speeches for former Democratic presidential candidates Adlai Stevenson, Robert F. Kennedy and George McGovern. None went on to become president. So after the younger Frankel finished up a stint in Sen. John F. Kerry’s failed presidential campaign in 2004, he got some teasing from his family.
“The joke was I was upholding the proud family tradition of working for losing Democrats,” he said.
During the Kerry campaign, Frankel met Favreau, a connection that would prove important. After the election, Frankel completed his master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He also did research for Ted Sorensen, John F. Kennedy’s chief speechwriter, who was then writing a memoir. When the Obama presidential campaign ramped up in early 2007, Favreau was made chief speechwriter. His first hire: Frankel.
Stanley Frankel didn’t live to see it, but on Nov. 4, 2008, his grandson broke the family streak of writing for failed Democratic candidates. The new president hired a stable of writers but kept the threesome — Favreau, Frankel and Rhodes — as the nucleus of his speechwriting team.
Frankel works out of an office next door to the White House along with four other writers. His work space is cluttered with old newspapers, magazines and edited speech drafts. He is a walking anthology of Kennedy quotes — useful to the team — and keeps a bust of the 35th president on his desk.
“He channels the Kennedy brothers,” Rhodes said.
Years of immersion in Kennedy-era records will do that.
Each week Frankel writes one or two speeches, some of which deal with routine policy. But the White House seems to grasp his interests and divvies up assignments accordingly. Axelrod said that Frankel isn’t the first option for a campaign-style speech. But when a speech calls for a historical reference or carries a moral component, Frankel often gets tapped.
Before sitting down to write, he consults clergymen and scholars. A common Frankel device is to work in a quote from the Bible. Speaking to a police memorial service in May, Obama closed with a verse from the Book of Proverbs. “The wicked flee when no man pursueth; but the righteous are as bold as a lion.”
Frankel prefers to write from his Washington apartment, which he shares with a roommate. He sets down his laptop on a square black kitchen table that draws good light; street sounds waft in from the windows. Speed isn’t his thing.
“We’ll make fun of him that he’ll disappear for days on end when he’s working on something,” Rhodes said. “He won’t even come to work. He’ll get totally immersed in it.”
The writers meet regularly with Axelrod to go over edits and discuss upcoming assignments, but they also spend a fair amount of time with Obama. Frankel worked closely with the president on the speech given at Byrd’s funeral service. Most of Obama’s concerns centered on how to address Byrd’s infamous stint in the Ku Klux Klan. The president wanted to mention that he had once discussed the issue with Byrd.
The speech never explicitly mentioned the Klan, but it made Obama’s intent clear: “We know there are things he said and things he did that he came to regret. I remember talking about that the first time I visited with him. He said, ‘There are things I regretted in my youth, you may know that.’ And I said, ‘None of us are absent some regrets, senator; that’s why we enjoy and seek the grace of God.’”
Frankel said he isn’t drawn to eulogies so much as any speech that has “a moral dimension: equality, justice, opportunity or sacrifice for another.”
He wrote the speech Obama gave on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January at Vermont Avenue Baptist Church in Washington. In preparation, he consulted Taylor Branch, author of an acclaimed trilogy about the civil rights movement. He asked Branch about the status of the civil rights movement in 1956, the year King gave a speech at the same church. The answers shaped a passage in which Obama told of how King’s followers were cheered by the court-ordered desegregation of buses in Montgomery, Ala., but the future of the civil rights movement was still uncertain.
“It wasn’t clear how we were going to reach the Promised Land,” Obama said. “Because segregation was still rife; lynching still a fact.” He went on to talk about the “hard winter” endured by “the slaves and the freedmen who rode an underground railroad, seeking the light of justice under the cover of night.”
Frankel’s family has suffered its own hard winters, which has indelibly influenced his thinking and writing. Both of his maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors. His grandfather was imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp; his grandmother hid from the Nazis in the woods.
“My grandmother survived for a number of years by the kindness of some strangers in the woods, going house to house for food,” he said.
The lesson he absorbed is that “certain things are right and certain things are wrong,” and that a person’s obligation is to “stand up for what’s right.”
Frankel also collaborated with Obama on a speech to the American Medical Assn. making the case for healthcare reform.
A week before the speech last summer, Obama summoned Axelrod, Favreau and Frankel to the Oval Office. For a half-hour the president paced around the office laying out the points he wanted to make.
As the main writer, Frankel gave Obama a draft and the president made revisions. Aboard Air Force One midway to the medical association gathering in Chicago, Obama came back to the staff section of the plane, pointed to Frankel (Obama calls him “Frankel”) and asked him into the conference room, where former budget director Peter Orszag and healthcare specialist Nancy-Ann DeParle were waiting.
Frankel peered over the president’s shoulder as Obama tossed policy questions at Orszag and DeParle and wrote in changes. The plane was close to touching down.
“I was thinking, how are we going to get these edits in on time,” Frankel said.
Obama left the room and with little time remaining, Orszag read aloud the changes the president had made. Frankel typed them out on his laptop and sent the final draft on to the Teleprompter just before the entourage boarded helicopters for the short flight from the airport into the city.
“Make no mistake,” Obama told the doctors, “the cost of our healthcare is a threat to our economy. It is an escalating burden on our families and businesses. It is a ticking time-bomb for the federal budget. And it is unsustainable for the United States of America.”
It was a vintage Obama speech. Well argued and comprehensive. There’s even a catchy sound bite: “a ticking time-bomb.”
The healthcare debate would drag on another nine months before Obama signed a bill. There were many reasons for the delay, not least of which was uniform Republican resistance to Obama’s agenda. But criticism persists that the spoken word, once Obama’s best asset, isn’t moving public opinion in his favor.
“Sometimes the Obama speeches are professorial lectures,” said Sorensen, who is regarded as one of history’s best presidential speechwriters. “It’s good that they assume the American people are adults. But it sometimes reduces the number or impact of lines that come straight from the heart.”
Frankel isn’t a demonstrative guy. Over hours of interviews, phone calls and e-mail exchanges, he rarely displayed much emotion. The closest he came was a moment walking back to his office one summer afternoon.
Considering what Sorensen had to say, he showed something that may have passed for exasperation. He sighed; he’d heard it all before. “I know, I know…"