Ep. 116 - Cody Keenan

Update: 2017-01-26


Cody Keenan, former chief speechwriter to President Obama, talks with David Axelrod about his evolution from intern in the speechwriting department of the 2008 Obama presidential campaign to becoming the President’s chief speechwriter; how President Obama collaborates on the speechwriting process; and what it was like to serve in the White House for eight years.

Following script is auto-generated by Speech to Text Technology:

the board for the acts files comes from rockin' mortgage my Quicken loans lift the burden of getting a home loan with rockin' mortgage and get a secure transparent home loan approval in minutes skip the bank of the waiting then go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files This podcast is brought you by sixty DB listen to conversations that go beyond the headlines business sports politics today's news plus all of your favorite podcasts download the free sixty DB at today the the the the and now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN The X Files with your host David Axelrod the the I met Cody Cannon when he was a young volunteer speechwriter in the Obama For President campaign in two thousand and seven I worked with him in the White House watched him grow to become the president's chief speechwriter a collaborator on some of the most meaningful and impactful speeches of our time I sat down with Cody the other day on his final day in the White House to talk about is during the the Cody Keenan good to be with you on your last day in the White House the walls are bare the staff is gone but the last event at the White House was the Cub celebration and I noticed that the remarks were about three times as long as the normal sports I suspect it has something to do with you I'm not sorry or longer was I mean if you'd I was born really bill literally and if you told me eight years in a saloon that wouldn't surprise me being a tad sketchy but the details but I did the first bar ever went it was Murphy's bleachers I was six months old and my first game in which those six months old my dad took me in a backpack and a baby backpack yes and set the bleachers and told the women behind me if you take care my kid for the next three are just pay attention to him I so wanna think about that speech as I was just channeling that was there to make sure my dad my mom and they get to the players and they were so excited to wear their hats and I channeled my own Phantom but I think our bodies Phantom into those remarks I tried to speak to a paragraph in there about how it's to be a Cub fan is a generational thing you know you talk about what don't you first came with your debt or like the first lady calling into doubt slept watching WGN and in all the wonderful heartbreaking stories The Season of people going to their parents' grave sites but yeah if you told me eight years ago you know that when we're thirty points down in Iowa that we're going to pull this thing off and you know pass universal health care and marriage equality and wax bin Laden might have believed you if you tell me my last beach in the White House would be for the World Series champion Chicago Cubs I was the chance know I I think we all agree no SEO I saw Theo Epstein who was present the Cubs I went to talk in the spring as I was working on a piece about the Cubs for The New Yorker and he talked about the thing that motivated him was that ride in when he was with the Red Sox and they broke their eighty six year drought and driving in from the airport passed a cemetery and there were Red Sox banners in caps on gravestones because family members went to to place them there because there would have meant so much to their family members and we saw that whole thing replicated again Chicago Bears story about a guy who drew eight hundred miles just to listen to the game on the radio at his father's grave I mean really amazing and I were walking out of Game five and people are starting to leave their chalk messages on the wall over the next few days he saw that explode in the role of love letters to departed fence saying we did it happened in a day that got me a little choked up by work that into the marks yeah they were great remarks I excuse you for making them long because every word was great to listen to him for an hour and a half on that one he excused it to me now is a special event for less he said firstly has never come to a sports event of this when she talked to the team should talk about her dad and I saw some of these big guys get a little Misty took photos with every player and I think the whole thing stretched out for like two or three hours down to which we just never do yeah and the gifts were special to him to pull the forty four of the scoreboard form which will be a problem for his arrest going pitch but maybe they'll find its way into the Yeah that's true well listen there are bigger problems if Rizzo has to go in and pitch some of the Cubs' front office guys ask me they said this is a National Historic Site really in the scoreboard over LA to do this or not I think I'll probably write you know we see I think there's a final round of pardons and commutation is coming out today so maybe they're among the BRIC you actually spent the early party or life in Chicago in Evanston what would you folks to the truth in advertising at rival agencies and this was the eighties was the basic data that was the big data of you know here in cars and cigarettes and and the Tribune actually surrounded page kind of covering the added the ad is in Chicago and they would fit my parents against each other you know Marilyn Keenan stole her husband's firm he stole Brock's candy from hers was a great place to grow up yet because you know you left there of how old were you when they move we gradually moved from Lakeview to Evanston to Will Matt and I went to Central Elementary will mature high and then we moved to East Coast from a day's work and I made a bee line right back to Northwestern but after high school yeah because your identification is very much Chicago What is about Chicago than that you get a better tracks you it's the one place where when I get off the plane I feel like home you know and it's got my wife's New Yorker and the boys told a Chicago has all the good of New York about the bat it's friendly you know it's diverse it's interesting there's no better sports fans in America than in Chicago you know you miss you made some serious Games writer I met all three of them in Chicago Games three four and five my dad to Game three a friend to begin for it my sister Game five when you came back you went to Northwestern and unrolled as a pre med student deaths what was at all so I had I had a knee reconstruction High School after football injury and I was fascinated by the whole thing and I shadowed my orthopedic surgeon a couple times doing surgeries and Danbury Hospital Connecticut I found it amazing and I loved AP Biology that was my favorite course but they're smart in college they try to weed you out you know that you have to do a Year of Chemistry and A Year of organic chemistry before you get to the good stuff and it worked with me they waited me out pretty fast and then you Chinese international relations I just drifted around in college they really I wanted to do chinese irreparably harmed my GPA and I can't remember any of it to this day Adelman in US relations actually withdrew from it was over while moved to Spain to work from Eric online for nine months and ultimately was it was my friends who said this is what you're passionate about you talk about politics all the time you know the West Wing wise said Did you guys talk about it when you are a kid worse it was that thing in your home has a big thing in my home my parents my mom was you know shh hardcore liberal Democrat you know worked for campaign for McGovern and Indiana campaign for Ted Kennedy show as was my dad was a Reagan Republican boy this really is a sitcom yeah and they scrapped you know a lot about politics that I first got interested and like why are they so riled up about all this I'm giving you my earliest political memories were when I really started paying attention was probably ramble Clinton's impeachment you know I remember thinking This is weird you know and assert getting kind of politically educated and paying attention and we have debates in the fraternity house on campus was reading The West Wing TV show started and that was kind of the hook for me really you know I run into even today at the University of Chicago teens to politics to the head West Wing may still I'm so hard that I'll talk to the intern class here a couple times a year now is ask for show of hands who watch The West Wing and these are kids who are there twenty and the West Wing started almost twenty years ago yes so I love that they watch yeah you know it'll be interesting I met my wore my big concerns is idealism and what's the future for idealism and that was a very idealistic show will there be I wonder if ill be new you know that was sort of based off of the Clinton White House owners will be shows based off of the Obama experience in the future when people are hungry for something I hope so my understanding of that show a good beer next thing you might maybe a manuscript and my essays that show it was originally supposed to be about the staff and Martin Sheen was going to kind of a side character and you'll smell became the main character but I think the show focused on stuff would be really interesting you when when did you realize that writing was something that you were good and enjoyed ice it always call your folks copy writers or the account execs are they worried they were in charge of creative though they were so they were sort of they were in that space is well yes I guess you know like I was raised to sell things sorta you know and and a lot of politics is you're selling a candidate writing always came easy to me probably is voracious reader I mean nonstop as a kid it's all I did will Matt Public Library had a contest every summer to see which kids could read most books I was always determined to win it and I did some incredible English teachers in high school who number of customer for C I ever got my life was ms wah soul in Connecticut Regional High School and was the first people ever got back was just torn to shreds with black ink and I went to afterwards I said must be some mistake you're never gonna see before and to her credit she patiently walked me through everything I've been doing wrong all these years and no one taught me otherwise and she made me a much better writer it's not something I focused on oncology still touch with her yet yeah Center note a couple years back I think you tired now but my second great lesson if you are listening nice work yes thank you my second grade teachers from me on Facebook the other day which was really fun to write to you you are the star of the CNN thing about the final days of the of the Obama administration so I'm sure a lot of old teachers who thought you would amount to nothing now will claim credit for your probably wondering what was happening with my facial hair and every difference in you you and you started in politics in earnest in the mail room for Ted Kennedy did use did you seek out Ted Kennedy I didn't say what I first moved to Washington in again as my fraternity brothers were like Just go I was adrift for six months after college you know I went back to my first Northwestern homecoming jobless and that's embarrassing after the residue moved to DC this is what you like we have a friend there Nick crashed his car actually find a job and I got here Nick was the only person I knew these wonders for my wedding this year is one of best friends and used to teach for America so I had nobody in the political sphere so I was just googling for jobs going to as many networking thing is I couldn't and you realize quickly it's very difficult to break in you know once you're in the door it's easy to find jobs but so I dyed some wool to I figured I'd see every The West Wing I went to Northwestern how hard could this be applying for legislative aide jobs and then once I realize I can get those staffs in jobs was to realize I can get those I stumbled upon a posting for an internship in Ted Kennedy's office and so I called and I knew it was obviously so I called the chief of staff because of course that's the way things work in Washington I just googled the phone number ask for Mary Beth Cahill and fortune is an intern Manning phones that day so I managed through our system who promptly transfer me to intern coordinator and she had never the phone without asking about anything I figured let strange but okay I can start Monday all that is strange ugly she eventually told me was five pm on Friday just want to go home and I also found out when I got hope in Him Keenan was helpful to steal the Irish connections are but also when I got there yet one hundred interns so what's one more now and what was handed you were you you ultimately became a staff assistant on the help Committee on Health Education Labor Committee their habit you work your way were you particularly talented at delivering mail and people saw something in you are at all I worked hard to deny the benefit of being with a few interns who are to graduate from college so my competition was slim and use of pews big fan of promoting upwards in the office so my first job was Step System his personal office answering phones and doing chores and walking the dogs was hired to do that after my internship into that fourth about nine months and then Michael Myers who is the chief of staff of the help Committee for Kennedy asked if I wanted to be his assistant I said yes that's when I first got the policy work and I know I know him you see was with Kennedy for his extraordinary mentor years with Kenny for decades and he was the one who kind of He will use one who first gave me a shot of speech because he didn't have a speechwriter you know if you just kind of wrote speeches for your own issue area and then his legislative director Guy and Carrie Parker has been with him since the sixties edited everything also a good writer yes he was kind of a ghost he never left his office even during evacuations just eight years ago down at the ship but that was my first shot because Michael didn't have time to write a speech and he asked me if I could write I said yes you know and I stayed up all night long for speech was a floor speech for Kennedy attacking the Bush administration's record on transparency and it's a terrible speech in retrospect I still have it but that was really gave it as written but you know it's Ted Kennedy's also dabble in for about twenty minutes ago on a tirade Mass the chair for more time did you what was your feeling when you heard him reading your speech there is nothing like it I mean watching somebody read something that I'd written was exhilarating and I wanted more so they gave me a shot a few more and I think the only row maybe four five speeches for Kennedy did you get to know him at all I did and he was I've been very fortunate that two buses in politics Ted Kennedy Barack Obama it's it's it's it's a good deal right there and they sure a lot of similarities there are very warm you know they're demanding but they're wonderful to their stuff you know whether it's thank you notes for this is for the office or whatever I mean they just couldn't be nicer better more generous people can of course was a real mentor to Obama did he tell as Prez never told you the story about some vote on some bill on St Patrick's Day you for that story where Kennedy asked for his vote he said I'll give you my vote but I don't tell you I don't know how you're going to pass this bill in this on the floor and you got the sixty votes and Obama looked at him with wonderment and had to pull that off and Kennedy pen name of the shoulders that look of the actually Irish yeah I've a funny story about my first speeches for Kennedy was for the RFK Human Rights Awards the year Katrina happened the first time was ever awarded to American and so I wrote what I thought was a nice beach and then you know this young senator broke Obama got up afterwards and gave a far better speech and I was standing in the back wall of the room watching this whole thing and later on when it first not to skip too far ahead but when I first talked to John fabric he told me he was in the back of the same room with the same feelings about that speech because he was still new at it he was he was twenty three years old and he was the speech writer for Barak Obama was twenty four dollars and one for Ted Kennedy Center next to each other and to know what what what was about Kennedy that attracted you he was a singular figure yeah it was it was is an awful awful you admit in the beginning it was the name and the perceived she held because I didn't know yet what was so important in politics I mean I came in you know like I said a West Wing fan and that's what I pictured everything was and you learn quickly it's nothing like that it is not sexy walk and talks you don't learn you don't solve world problems in our What I learned the most part unless with dance with the most important thing I learnt was in Kennedy's mail room and it was opening the mail and reading the mail and seeing how important public service and politics were to people's lives I mean this is these are people ask where my Veteran's benefits I'm crushed under student loans health care and you're like Oh my God this is not like TV this matters deeply to a lot of people and Ted Kennedy was a master of constituent work I mean his staff in Boston and the constituent work it was his people first get this done no waiting you know and every time we'd send a memo to Senator Kennedy would come back with how many people will this help how quickly that's all he cared about and that changed my entire outlook on public service why want to stick with it he also was in a sense people who look at his passing is a line of demarcation because he was obviously a liberal the liberal lion of the Senate and had enormously positive relationships across the aisle at you you remember his memorial service which John McCain and Orrin Hatch spoke and there are very few figures may be none who have that kind of relationship it seems kind of relationship sessions it seemed like an era died in the Senate with them you know I mean Orrin Hatch has said literally got into politics to defeat Ted Kennedy he ran against Ted Kennedy in Utah even though taking his rest chooses and they became some of closest friends and they passed the Children's Health Insurance Program together I mean I was a trait Kennedy had where he was willing to get half a loaf by working with Republicans and incremental change and that's you see a lot about the president to the way he works there just aren't as many willing Republican partners he says Yeah you know Joe Biden tells the story of when he was ill and in the ladies who had to drop out of a presidential race in the neoprene and resumes depressed was at his house in Delaware and the doorbell rings and there's Ted Kennedy with a gym bag and find so were you doing here in Canada so touched when I have a swim and came in and they set by the pool and the Cave of the big pep talk and there are all kinds of stories like the chest of acts of kindness infinite and you heard all around said the center's memorial service because this was a guy who knew it had endured the most public of tragedies with his brothers and you know he is he broke his back and sixty four and was out for a while with his kids and so he had a big heart a tenderness to him that he is always the first call was one thing and over and over over I remember he had there was a letter hanging in his private study from Trent Lott can probably tell the story now and I don't remember what the main thrust of that was the end of it was the world only knew your kindness you know and this was somebody who is his sworn enemy across the aisle yeah well yeah there's a lesson in that which is you can fight fiercely disagree and still appreciate each other as human beings it's something that would be great to capture recapture yeah he we shared a birthday can after we got to Washington and George Bush and Julius Erving by the way and he would call you know I was at a rally for Obama in two thousand and eight I guess and some Kim can read through the crowd with a cell phone saying Can you talk to Senator Kennedy calling to wish me Happy Birthday at David Gogo good but really really a remarkable guy and yet you left last why you when you want to graduate school yeah you know my boss Michael gave me the opportunity in two thousand and six to become a legislative aide and actually start working on legislation my first portfolio was mental health and disability policy which is something I became passionate about and but I quickly realized I was in way over my head and sat down with Legislative Council and staffers from other offices and they would run circles around me and I went back to my boss and said I'm doing the senator to service appreciate but I was the only legislative aide without some sort of advanced degree I mean and I don't just mean like a law degree we had bio at the cysts on staff now with PhD in molecular genetics I mean he had the best stuff on the hill and I was ready for that so I went to the Kennedy School to try to get you know kind of quantitative background that I hadn't gotten in college and I told the senator I would come back when I was done if you happy and you but you did and I didn't get to help do that if it did because I was more focused I was in college on what I wanted to do for sure I focus hard on policy and quantitative analysis and then lightning struck halfway through Stephanie cutter who was also my mentor since or Kennedy's office Hughes communications director she came up to lecture one night I said Let's go get a beer we when got a beer and she asked me what was going to do in my summer break I told her I didn't know yet she said Well you should go right for this guy Obama so what's a nice thought but I've only read a few speeches and how why would he hire me and she said Why no speech writer Jon favorite work of the month your campaign did you let's take a short break and we'll be back with Cody Keenan rocket mortgage by Quicken loans proudly supports the X Files when it comes to the big decision of choosing a mortgage lender is important to work with someone you can trust leisure best interests in mind with rockin' mortgage you'll get a transparent online process that gives you the confidence you need to make an informed decision to give the bank of the waiting and go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files equal Housing lender license in all fifty states and MLS consumer access dot org Number thirty thirty uses us why would he hire me Did you know work for him I did I was actually on the floor in Boston two thousand and four when he gave his convention speech because of their working for Kennedy and it was electric you know this was someone who is talking about politics in a way that I saw politics but hadn't been able to put into words you know and help he was from my hometown but I believe that I had gotten a little jaded working in the Senate you're able to do things when you see the way it really works is this really what I want to do and he made it seem as noble and hopeful as I hoped it was when I first came to Washington to take jobs and in turn many a fact not quite in but not quite those in but in the open pool in the comics shop and when I showed up it was just John favorite Adam Frankel yeah another great guy from you guys were all young I was twenty six yeah and fans was twenty five having spent time in the Senate how familiar were you with Obama is of physiology language how he approached beaches I was in but before the internship I read both of his books I drove from Boston to Chicago to listen to both of them on audio versions to get his voice down and a state Obama won a Grammy for one of those things he's told me he got and I stayed up all night before my first day watching speeches on YouTube to try to get it down but I still think probably took me to three years to really get his voice down in a way that was more than just mimicry what we're we're we're kind of speech reading did you do in during those years I recall some of it because um you you had a kind of you had a more muscular sort of crowd pleasing style which was useful in a campaign that probably came from my parents work to Yeah yeah but you remember speeches euro during the campaign yet in mind my stuff was the lowest of the low stuff for me to be talking points for backyard barbecues it would be emails that one out we had a running joke that you put out a statement just hundreds of hundreds of statements when you're running for office celebrating National trout fishermen day or you know national bike accident survivor day whatever and we'd always in a mall with on this day of all days let us remember trout fishers are something that was my job to do all the stuff that Stevenson videos and the shorter stuff I did run a lot of big wins on the campaign and I wasn't ready for yet unknown thousands was a very patient or you know what this would pull back on the assignments until I was ready yeah I don't think you know we we we have some if you're there you experience and the people it's hard to describe the environment of that campaign but that the campaign was a survey once I've been going on in fifty of them that was a once in a lifetime experience was extraordinary and funny enough it was in my daddy's work an office building to thirty three North Michigan yeah she's really excited that that's where was that we have this massive floor on the eleventh floor wide open spaces you know very few offices and you watched him grow everyday more more people coming in you know and the place was electric with young people and what amazing things that convince you guys trusted young people to do things that we don't always express well you that when we got together to talk about whether he would run for president should run for president there were eight people in the room and that was you know basically the Obama For America Organization right there we and the whole bet was that there are a bunch a well motivated young people out there who might take up the cause and you know if we didn't believe that we could have done it there were Cody Keenan said Qin Qin sat there even though we didn't know you are the people in headquarters get too much credit I you know eyes before I am in between phase of my internship I went to Ames Iowa for a few weeks for the caucus and volunteered in that shop and did whatever they asked and all of these offices are run by people or even younger than me twenty six who'd put in twenty hour days and you know just dominate precincts I mean run circles around the other campaigns and lived and breathed all their work and you know are still good friends to this day is extraordinary yeah and can change the world I mean because of Iowa map and none of this would have happened as possible for Ames won two and we dominated our caucus night talk about coming to the White House and what that was like it's it's an entirely different experience to camp after the camaraderie was there but the situation was much different and grave and mean and scary scary scary in Yemen in the culture changes immediately to kind of fun and freewheeling in Chicago and you get here in the White House so first thing to do is what I mean to you when you walked in the first day how is this happening you know what I remember my friends sent all sorts of nice notes the morning of the night before my parents and they've actually been forwarding those notes to me today on the way out I've never been here before and you walk and your dislike yeah but that fades fast when you're you know not only trying to find a computer but a bathroom launch and fix the global economy you know before sundown yeah I think it's another thing that's hard to convey because
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Ep. 116 - Cody Keenan

The Axe Files with David Axelrod