Obama’s Speechwriter on Instilling Hope (with Cody Keenan)
Words matter. Coming from the highest office, they have the power to bring the nation together or tear it apart. Andy speaks with Barack Obama’s chief speechwriter Cody Keenan about some of the most high-stakes speeches Obama gave during his presidency, from the aftermath of a white supremacist shooting to the fate of marriage equality, and why his message of redemption resonated so strongly with the American people. Cody also reacts to the pendulum swing that brought us Trump’s hateful language and Biden’s propensity for unscripted remarks.
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Andy Slavitt, Cody Keenan
Andy Slavitt 00:18
Welcome to IN THE BUBBLE with Andy Slavitt. So the midterms are two weeks away. And if we’ve learned anything in the past year with the Dobbs decision, elections really do matter. Go back to the year 2000, the Gore versus Bush and where we would be in climate now, you can go to 2016 and say, What if Donald Trump had not won? How would the world be different today? So we kind of have that scope in front of us, which is, you know, we’re going to reshape another generation of world events. That’s a good framing for today’s conversation with Cody Keenan, because there was a pivotal moment in the Obama administration in 2015. When a whole bunch of issues were converging with similar kind of feel to the way Dobbs felt today. You know, over the course of 10 days, we were waiting for SCOTUS ruling on whether gay marriage would be legal in this country, whether the Affordable Care Act, and its pre-existing condition protections would remain the law of the land. And then in the midst of all that, we came to grips with mass murder in a Black church, in Charleston, South Carolina. Cody was President Obama’s speech writer at the time, and was in the room with the president during that 10 day stretch. He wrote a new book about it called Grace, President Obama and the 10 day history in the battle for America. And I want to get into with Cody, the little bit of what was going on then at that time, and try to translate it into the decisions ahead of us over the next couple of weeks, as voting has begun. And we think about how consequential these are what hangs in the balance, shootings, rights of LGBTQ plus Americans, democracy, climate, health care, all of these things. And so I’m looking forward to have you listen in on this conversation with Cody, who I knew somewhat from serving in the Obama administration, but didn’t know super well. So looking forward to this.
Andy Slavitt 02:34
Cody, welcome to the bubble.
Cody Keenan 02:45
Hey, Andy, good to see you, man.
Andy Slavitt 02:46
You too. You know, I’ve been thinking a little bit about like, how to place President Obama in the context of kind of recent run of presidents. How would you start to answer that question, how should people think about that?
Cody Keenan 03:05
Well, I guess it depends on recent right. Are we going all the way back to FDR?
Andy Slavitt 03:09
Yeah, go back. Go back. As long as you’ve got perspective,
Cody Keenan 03:13
Yeah, it’s legitimately tough to do for a lot of different reasons. You know, FDR kind of saved the economy and the planet. LBJ heaved through for all his flaws heaved through these massive expansions of civil rights. You know, Joe Biden is grappling with issues even tougher than the ones we had. But you know, I’ll happily put him up there, right by the top, you know, we walked in to an economy and flames almost as bad as SDRs. Two wars. And beyond that, you also had something that no other presidency had to grapple with, which was Brock Obama was kind of a, it was a very potent avatar of the ways America is changing. And we’ve been living through the backlash to that pretty much since he was elected. So that’s a new thing that a president had to grapple with. And yet he did it with, you know, grace and ease. And as Tallahassee Coates once wrote, he walked on ice for eight years and never felt.
Andy Slavitt 04:11
Is his legacy always gonna somehow be connected to being the guy before Trump?
Cody Keenan 04:16
No, I don’t think so. I think what makes the President’s legacy beyond, you know, any particular policy initiatives is what young people who came of age during that presidency go on to do? I know that might sound a little weird, but after, you know, JFK, you saw this whole burst of energy and enthusiasm in international service and public service. And I think you’re only beginning to see Obama’s legacy there in that more and more people are running for office who are younger Browner, who looked like the rest of America, and I think those numbers are only going to grow and I think you can credit the fact that Barack Obama made it to the highest office in politics with a lot of that.
Andy Slavitt 04:56
So one thing that’s pretty clear when you read Grace and I happened to have some more firsthand knowledge of it as well is what a special relationship the President had with his chief speechwriter. And I’m not sure if it was this way with all presidents. I mean, I think perhaps President Obama’s words, were kind of and the words out of his mouth were a bigger part of who he was and how he how he viewed his job as President, you can comment if you agree or disagree with that. But it felt like doing the job you had to do, you had to get to know him, like from the inside out.
Cody Keenan 05:36
That’s totally true. I do think it was different than most other relationships between presidents and their speech writers. And that’s not necessarily credit to me, I’m just kind of the beneficiary of it. It’s a credit to the fact that Barack Obama is a writer, he wrote dreams for my father, you know, in the 90s. He wrote the four convention speech that made him famous by himself. And he cares deeply about every word that’s on the page that he’s going to read. So it made our jobs, both more difficult and easier to have him as that. But also to give credit to the relationship that he had with Jon Favreau. My predecessor was chief speechwriter. They started working together in the Senate, right, you know, they sat, they sat 10 feet apart for two years, coming up with kind of the narrative that would inform his campaign and his presidency. And by the time I took over, my office was directly underneath the Oval Office, but there’s still a bunch of hoops, you have to jump through to be able to go see the president whenever you want, even as somebody with walking privileges. So Obama and I did have to get to know each other on that level. But we didn’t have the benefit of two years of just, you know, calling each other by our first names and really getting to know each other like that.
Andy Slavitt 06:42
Yeah, it’s interesting. You mentioned his two books that you wrote. I remember reading […] father. And I decided at that point in time, if this guy runs for president, he has kind of this perspective, that is both enlightened and progressive, but also tolerant and understanding of different views based on how he grew up in rural Kansas to Hawaii to out of country and express it so well. It felt like we were on such an optimistic course, when he became president. And even people who didn’t support him, I think felt a sense of pride and optimism in the country. So how do you think in that context, that image of someone leading the country that has this optimistic and inclusive vision got damaged?
Cody Keenan 07:37
People always forget that the back half of whatever President Obama would say, would quote, Dr. James 1rc of the moral universe, he also add on it doesn’t bend that way on its own, it bends because people march and organize and push in America is the whole story of America is a series of bursts of progress and then backlash to that progress. And we’re living through a period of backlash right now that if there’s a way that Trump is tied to Obama, it’s that his presidency represented the backlash to somebody like Barack Obama assuming the presidency and getting back to the first part of your question about the fact that he was so quote unquote, different, which is what his opponents tried to play up. I’d argue the opposite, that Barack Obama is actually the most normal president we’ve had in a long time. And here’s why. For 240 years, presidents were white and came up through lead prep schools and went to Yale and you just you tick through the boxes. That’s not really how most people in the country are. Certainly not anymore. The fact that Barack Obama was biracial didn’t know his dad grew up in a bunch of different places, makes him more normal nowadays with the way America really is. And to add on to that normalcy. He’s the first president of the united states who pumped his own gas within four years of entering the White House. He didn’t spend 30 years in office was some team of yes men and women and never had Butler’s or servants or anything. You know, he was driving a Ford Escape Hybrid the day before he gave that speech in 2004.
Andy Slavitt 09:09
Somehow is it bother you that somehow it gets portrayed as a kind of elite, Harvard Ivy League person?
Cody Keenan 09:17
He did go to Harvard Law, but he started at Occidental and then Columbia. Yeah, I’m not trying to gloss over this. It’s not like he was working on the railroad before he took the office. But he was always characterized by the right as a function of something you’re supposed to be afraid of. Whether it’s like, you know, an arugula eaten, baby killing lefty or, or someone wearing Somali garb, who’s a double secret Muslim terrorist hell bent on ruining America from the inside, they’ll just pick what frightens people about somebody like him and run with that. But the reason it never truly worked, the reason he became the only president since Eisenhower to get reelected to win election twice with more than 51% of the vote. Is that because most people see through that stuff, you know, no president is truly normal. Let’s be honest here. What I loved about working with him though is he had no emotional neediness. And I don’t have enough of a psychology background. I don’t know if that comes from his childhood or what, but he was not emotionally needy. He didn’t need people around. He didn’t need to be on the phone with you at all hours, he would he would sit down with you work on a speech and when it was done, he was done. And you know, and shoot an email to see how it’s going.
Andy Slavitt 10:27
Yeah. I mean, well, certainly compared to his two predecessors. He struck me as incredibly disciplined. And, you know, no one gets it right all the time. But having someone who has the discipline to make a decision, based upon all the right input, and all the right information, I remember, briefing him once, and I only briefed him a handful of times you were in the room. You know, I forget we were briefing him on it. But he went and asked everybody in the room, at the end of it, like what do you think, and he turned to you, and I think you said something like, I don’t think you can pull it off? Like I think you said I don’t think this is you like I don’t think this is the speech. I don’t think you can sell the public on this. And then he got captured in that moment, and then went through that debate tried to either convince himself or you whether or not he could, that is the kind of discipline at a very, very challenging decisions that I find. Certainly the guy that came after him. That’s not how he ran things.
Cody Keenan 11:26
Yeah, the worst, Obama had this way of convincing you to make the argument that he’d already decided on, you wanted you to hear it or he make you make the opposing argument, even if he didn’t believe in it and halfway through be like, Why am I saying this? I don’t believe in this. He was it. That was tough. I don’t remember this exact meeting; I died to go back and see it. But it was tough to, I had to earn it over a series of years to be able to tell him no, or say that’s a bad idea. You know, maybe first for the first couple years I was in there with him, it would just be like, whatever you want. And but eventually you get more and more comfortable pushing back.
Andy Slavitt 12:04
It was pretty kinetic. Let’s take a quick break and come back with Cody Keenan. I took it away, Cody, and we were just talking about before the break what I would this was your ability to challenge him and his willingness to kind of test the boundaries. What I didn’t realize until later was how much someone in your role had a duty to kind of have his back and protect him from something he thought he might regret. And that I’m using my own interpretation of time and spent later on with him. And then the Biden administration and so forth, that at first I thought wow, how could someone challenge a president, particularly someone like Barack Obama who own the room, and what I came to believe, and you tell me if this is the wrong interpretation of interpretation was that like, whatever happened in the in the room, you had to make sure he could go out and do his best game out of it. And even if that meant you had to say something difficult to him, that was just going to be the way it had to be.
Cody Keenan 13:28
Yeah, there was one speech in particular, 2013, he had to go to the Lincoln Memorial and give a speech on the 50th anniversary of the I Have a Dream speech, which is unfair on its face, that you have to go give a speech, paying tribute to the one of the greatest speeches of all time. But he had inserted a line into a draft that I just knew, we first of all was right and true. But it would inflame Fox News viewers and Fox would just run it wall to wall for a week. And that would overshadow the speech itself. Now I gotta go find it. It was something about it was something about race. And it was it was it was provocative in that it was true. And the type of thing most people don’t say. So I had to go to him and just say, I’d make the case I’d say look, sir, this, this I agree with this, but it will, the speech will no longer matter. Fox will turn it into a little firestorm, which then means every other network will feel compelled to cover it too. And I think it’ll end up doing a disservice. And h has way of not playing dumb, but it looked at me like what do you mean, I don’t understand, to force you to keep making this argument, even if you can tell he’s already kind of got it. And so when it finally ended, he said we were standing in the outer Oval Office, he was just meant to step out in the Rose Garden. And he said, Alright, fine, take it out. I just think it’s sad that you don’t think we can talk openly and honestly about our history. And I was like, come on, man.
Andy Slavitt 14:54
You do own that Cody. I mean, it’s just carrying this soul notion have kind of the words over president’s mouth forward to compare and contrast that with Trump. And in with President Biden, first of all, like, is this the probably the dumbest question you’ll ever be asked, but how important is it? Like the relationship with the words the President says? Like in the context of all the other things that he does? End of the day, how much does it matter?
Cody Keenan 15:26
It matters quite a bit, not in the sense that I’ve been asked before well, he gave this speech on x, and it didn’t change anything. Well, yeah, speech isn’t going to change everything. And hopefully, it will inspire people to, you know, pick up the cause, join, push vote, whatever. That’s what changes things. The President’s words matter, and that, you know, the legacy of the Trump administration is this, his words unleashed something primal. That was already there. I don’t I don’t think that I don’t think Americans have gotten any worse. Since Donald Trump was elected. You can even make an argument that we’ve gotten better. But he created permission structure for the basis elements to say whatever they wanted, or even engage in political violence. You know, there’s no coincidence that after he took office, people marched on Charlottesville without their hoods on. And there was a whole spate of racially motivated gender motivated killings in late 2018, where they were all Trump supporters. And you know, you can’t draw a direct correlation. Of course, you know, there’s plausible deniability, just because Donald Trump says all Mexicans are rapists. That’s that doesn’t mean he’s telling people to go out and kill them. But to see someone in power, talking that way, liberates others to talk that way. And to act that way to the point where political violence is now something in America that is more brazen than it’s been before.
Andy Slavitt 16:55
Did anybody was he just unschoolable? And just kind of kind of went by instinct tested his messages and kind of pushed the limit? And did you worry that that sort of changed what from now on is going to be sort of the acceptable range of, of what a president can do?
Cody Keenan 17:16
For the time being, at least because you’ve got every other Republican trying to emulate Trump because they see his success with their base. But nothing lasts forever? You know, everything is cyclical. And again, not just on its own, because there’s progress and backlash and backlash, that backlash. And I’m hopeful that we live in one of these times a backlash, but I am hopeful that we will come out the other end because people just eventually reject it.
Andy Slavitt 17:44
Yeah, it doesn’t feel good. I mean, it doesn’t, it doesn’t feel hopeful, it feel, which is for all that you’re working through with Obama, and I’m sure there were moments do describe many of them very clearly, in the book where there’s really challenging moments of things happening in the country. And I think you’re right there. No, in some ways, they’re no worse than the things that have happened afterwards. It’s horrible shooting in a church, people’s rights potentially being taken away. And yet, you know, there was some sense of hope and optimism that I felt like the president, with your help, certainly was focused on giving the country
Cody Keenan 18:31
Yeah, it’s part of the job. And it’s the vision thing, you have to create some sort of vision to lead the country toward and Trump never had one, all he said, what he does. I’ll get to that. All he ever said was every day how bad things are even when he was president. Cities are on fire people are writing well, you’re the president, man, you know, what are you doing? And then his only vision was making America great again, which is just the loudest dog whistle there is people know what that means. Whereas Obama and Biden have a tougher job in any progressive, it’s, it’s, if you step back and look at the fuller trajectory of America, like Yeah, it should give you hope. We’ve over 240 something years, we’ve done incredible things in the moment and never feels great. Yeah. And you don’t get that’s part of this book, too. You don’t get daily progress. A lot of the times, we would just most nights in the White House, most of those 2009 or 22 nights. You’d go home happy if you move the ball forward just a little bit. But then progress and victory comes in one fell swoop whether it was Obamacare, or the times Obamacare was upheld or the right to marriage equality, just bang. But you have to remember that that was 50 years of concerted effort to win marriage equality, right. It was 100 years and counting of concerted effort to try to get universal health care. This stuff is hard and takes a long time.
Andy Slavitt 19:48
It’s great perspective, really important perspective. And even in the conference, we had Ron Klain on and even in the confines of what was a by any measure an incredibly success. This whole summer, what we talked about was how, how so much of that almost didn’t happen, the most important climate bill in the history of the of the world, I believe, something that that may be looked back on. I’ve said this before this program, so forgive me, but maybe look back on the way that Medicare legislation was looked on Social Security will look down by future generations. Like how could we not be doing this, it will be the most obvious step to take barely passed, and for much of the last year and a half look like it wouldn’t pass. And it’s very much operating on a precipice. You give people a sense, and it’s just a sense I got reading through your book was, you know how much when you’re working through these things. They’re not preordained. They could be, you could be taking a step back, you could be taking a step forward, and you don’t really know too later. And then a lot of the issues in your book, white supremacy, marriage equality, the Affordable Care Act. All three of them are major topics today
Cody Keenan 21:02
And it will be for a long time to come. I mean, one of the main thesis of the book is in again, I’m just blatantly taking it from President Obama, because he wrote it into one of the drafts of the Selma speech is that America is not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills. You know, politics is a contest to determine the true meaning of America, who belongs who gets to be an American, who’s treated equally and who’s not and who gets to decide. And that’s what fascinated me about these 10 days. I mean, they, it wasn’t all glowing progress. It begins with a racist slaughter carried out under the banner of white supremacy with a guy who had a fetish for the Confederate flag. It’s just some of the darkest stuff that can make you feel like we haven’t made any progress as a country. But we’re also, as speech writers were, you know, working through six different drafts of speeches for what it Supreme Court knocks down Obamacare, what if it finds some middle ground? What if it just upholds a completely same with marriage equality? There were four different..
Andy Slavitt 22:02
Talk about that draft, I thought it was great to the draft of things that never happened.
Cody Keenan 22:07
Yeah, those speeches were dark reading, writing a speech for if millions of people are suddenly gonna lose their health insurance, or millions of people are going to be told, sorry, you know, you’re a second class citizen, you don’t get to get married, like the rest of us. Those are really dark speeches to write, and especially to give to him to have him be the person breaking that news. In a way. It’s just it was bleak. And but he had this habit that where he wouldn’t read those in advance. He just didn’t bother. That was glass he wouldn’t break literally. All right, thanks. Thanks a lot.
Andy Slavitt 22:37
I didn’t need to see this brother or something like that?
Cody Keenan 22:39
Yeah, didn’t need this one brother on the Affordable Care Act One. And then marriage equality. He just knew he just knew that had to be, that had to be right.
Andy Slavitt 22:49
Well, let’s take one more break. I want to come back and we’re going to talk about the current climate with President Biden and some of the things ahead with Cody.
Andy Slavitt 23:18
Alright, so we’re back with Cody Keenan. Cody, like, okay, so words matter. And I feel like I feel like this is gonna sound like I trapped you into this conversation by getting you to say words matter, because I’m just a gotcha journalist guy, all of a sudden, but Biden’s words, okay. We’ve got a $22 billion bill in front of the Senate where we’re trying to get money out of them for the pandemic. And the President goes on 60 minutes and says the pandemic is over. We’re in the middle of trying to get people boosted in a very challenging way. He says that the pandemic is over, you know, on the kind of long held view that even he had on Taiwan, where presidents have been saying the same words, for decades, for a very specific reason on how to signal on Taiwan, which is around strategic ambiguity. There’s a very well laid out philosophy and you’d never say if attacked, will let will respond and get he said, If attacked, US will respond and he said it twice. How do you square some of that? How do you deal with some of that?
Cody Keenan 24:21
As a staffer? As a staffer, you just kind of put your face in your hands, but you know, he’s, that’s one out it’s one of Biden’s strengths in general is his straightforwardness and willingness to say what he means but what you’re getting at is this. Suddenly, you’ve got two entire federal departments scrambling around just because the President says one sentence How do you deal with that? You can do the best you can to brief the President on the front end and work really hard on his speech and make sure you know we would work with every speech. It’s important people to know doesn’t just come straight out of my laptop and go right to the President. You know, I At a team of speech writers and we all made each other’s work better policy, we’d work with policy aides to make a speech better. We had an army of fact checkers in the office, one of whom I ended up marrying. So a lot of people would work on every draft for when to the President. And that was even more true for speeches on international soil. We had the you had to learn to hire little platoons at the State Department going through with fine tooth combs.
Andy Slavitt 25:22
Yeah, like I understand why presidents want to be impromptu, I understand that every president trust their gut, and believes that they can do that. But I also have seen people standing in the corner, holding their breath when it comes time for questions. So what do you do at when, when the comments made? And it’s not what you wanted to say? Like I think that appears at the White House has sort of gone from somewhere in between the walk back and the full throated endorsement. It’s almost a sort of this wink to the press that like, what do you expect us to do?
Cody Keenan 25:56
We had our cleanup on aisle 10 moments every once in a while too. But I’d argue I think it’s not so much giving president the benefit of the doubt. But I think the press corps knows who Joe Biden is, and doesn’t necessarily get as they didn’t necessarily get as dramatic or pearl clutching I thought they might, because we’ve also just come through, you know, a president who stood next to Putin on foreign soil and trashed NATO. I mean, that’s wildly different. The president have had no respect for any kind of American sacrifice over the years or any anybody’s work. And we’ll just go out and do his best to make things worse on a daily basis and open up the fissures in the country. And so you have to read into a president’s words, you also have to read motivation into it and character, to give the kind of fuller picture of them.
Andy Slavitt 26:46
Sir, if you look forward a little bit coming into the presidency, people forget how much of a tightrope there was between kind of the Sanders left and the moderate kind of center left, that the presidents had to walk? And how would that has actually happened, you know, fairly gracefully. I mean, if you look at things that could have blown up, like student loan forgiveness, really quite remarkable job there, I would say progressive wins, but also some bipartisan wins. The thing that is more challenging, and it’s got to be maybe was challenging. When you and President Obama were there, maybe it’s more challenging now is, you have so many if you want to speak to the country, and as you move forward towards the midterm elections, you know, you’ve got MAGA Republicans, which you probably never gonna win with. You’ve got disaffected Republicans, you got independence, you got center left, you’ve got center and constructing messages that work for everybody feels almost impossible. And it’s the default thing to just go screw it just be genuine. You know, or how do you process all of that?
Cody Keenan 28:03
Yeah, in addition to the kind of breadth of the political spectrum, then you have to layer on top of that race and gender and religion and you have infinite audiences you can talk to Barack Obama always had a he practiced a politics of redemption, rather than recrimination. And people, you know, might roll their eyes at it as naive. But it also worked. The way that he won reelection twice, he won states like North Carolina and Indiana, which a Democrat hadn’t done in more than 40 years. And victory gives you the chance to actually go and do things. And what I mean by politics of redemption is he gave people the chance to change, you know, his vision of American exceptionalism is that America is great, not just because we’ve been, you know, blessed by God, or whatever, and we’re just perfect. It’s because we’re actually we were told in our founding documents that we are imperfect and challenge to get better. So, you know, when he gave the race speech, in a way, when he campaigned it away, you know, even after something like Charleston, he’d always say, you know, what, a out in that in Selma, and then again, in Charleston, he said, what a remarkable thing. It would be for the South to rise again, not by reasserting its password by transcending it, you know, and on the on the campaign trail when he talks about race and his white grandmother, and he, he wouldn’t point at our past and say, we did awful things, and therefore we’re all guilty of it. He’d say, Yeah, America has done bad things in the past. But the great thing is we overcome those things. He doesn’t, he doesn’t point fingers or scold and say, You’re wrong, you’re doing this wrong. He gives people the chance to change their minds and be better and it’s more effective.
Andy Slavitt 29:44
So with your permission, Cody, I want to there’s only one way I can close this conversation. And it’s sort by one of my favorite moments in my lifetime that you were very much a part of. And so with your permission, because I know you’ve had to go through this a number of times before I would play a little clip, you mentioned Ciara said we’re gonna play we’re gonna play a little clip of the President and what is forever known as the Amazing Grace speech. Can you just walk us through how that came about?
Cody Keenan 31:32
Sure he’d first of all I’ll admit freely like I do in the book that he just crossed out the back half of the draft that I gave him, I gave him a four page draft for that eulogy. And he made good line edits to the first two pages, and then pages three and four just had a big line right through it, which is just getting in as he was reworking on it that night, he added the lyrics to Amazing Grace. And it didn’t enter my mind that he might sing it. We were on marine one the next morning heading from the White House to Andrews. And he stood up just as we landed, and we’re taxing to the plane, he said, you know, if it feels right, I might sing it. And that’s why only five of us knew because there’s just five of us in that front cabin. It was Dennis, Valerie, the First Lady and me. And I, you know, had been up for two straight nights. So I just looked at him was like you do you man?
Andy Slavitt 32:22
What did you think?
Cody Keenan 32:23
you mentioned earlier how it was my job often to kind of not protect him from himself, because he didn’t need it. But to think through all the risks, and I think in a more awake moment, I would have, I would have said, Listen, you know, singing is risky. That’s really, really risky. But I was too tired and just didn’t do it. So I said, go for it, you know, and I knew the morning was already so full of joy, because marriage equality became real. And you just couldn’t help but you get the TV’s on in the White House. And it’s just everybody hugging and kissing on the Supreme Court and our colleagues do a whole bunch of our colleagues were just told, you can go get married now. It was beautiful. The whole generation kind of felt like the country was catching up. But he was still mindful that he was on his way to eulogize nine people who had been brutally murdered by a white supremacist and he was able to compartmentalize himself that way. He also knew in ways that that I knew, you know, in my brain, but not necessarily intrinsically and in my heart, that he was going to a Black church service. And it was going to be filled with the Spirit. And people would be moved and people would be shouting Amen and preach while he was talking. Because he’d been through that a bunch before and if you watch it, the organist starts playing at different moments in the speech. And then when he took a leap of faith to sing, but he knew that they would be there to join in and then they did.
Andy Slavitt 34:20
And of course, Grace, which is the title of your book, and the name of your daughter was also the members. For those who don’t remember, the members of the Church. It really planted that notion of grace into the country at a fee if you want to just remind us of what they did.
Cody Keenan 34:35
They changed everything. Two days after the people they love were, were shot to death in the church. They stood up one by one and forgave the killer in court at his arraignment. And I was watching this, like, how is this possible? I thought there must be some mistake because I didn’t come up. I came up Episcopalian. I didn’t come up in the AME tradition. You know, when we say forgive us our trespasses and all that we You’re not assuming like, okay, that doesn’t really extend all the way to murder. But what they did was extraordinary. And it’s impossible to prove. But I think it did kind of change the way the country was walking for the rest of that week, you saw the Confederate flag start to come down over public spaces in the south, you know, even Republican governors were ordering to come down over the Capitol building. And Obama would joke, you know, I came into office with a whole long to do list and this was an audit, it was just pretty extraordinary sit and they also made the eulogy possible, because he didn’t want to give one, even five days after the murders, he still didn’t want to give one. But it was what they did that that sort of planted the seed for what he would say.
Andy Slavitt 35:48
[…] part because of that, because as he’s written in your book, he’d sort of given enough speeches about gun violence, and felt like, I can’t continue to say the same words and not have anything change.
Cody Keenan 36:05
That’s exactly right. It’s not that he was tired of giving eulogies and writing eulogies. And he and I had done several together, it’s that he was tired of it. It always seemed like the, his eulogy was the punctuation at the end of each mass shooting cycle, and it would give us the permission structure to move on, you know, I always viewed it as he had to give up and kind of absolve us of our collective sin of doing nothing. And he said, I don’t do that anymore. We should keep thinking about this, this should remain raw, we should get political, because it’s just as political to do nothing about it. So I don’t want to get up there. And in this cycle, I want people to be thinking about this stuff and do something about it.
Andy Slavitt 36:42
Did that go into his desire to do something a little bit different, which was singing in providing that sense of collective mourning and forgiveness at the same time?
Cody Keenan 36:53
Yeah, I mean, he wrote into the end of the eulogy. He had a pen pal, I didn’t know about a Marilyn Robinson, the author, and he wrote into the eulogy that he’d been feeling an open heart all week, because the country was conducting himself just a little bit better than usual. It’s at least felt that way. And then you get the two Supreme Court decisions. And you’re thinking maybe we are starting to answer these questions about America and what we are in the right way. And so he just took that he just took that leap of faith, to put himself out there, you know, this is getting back to words matters. So to actions, the fact that the President knighted States would be willing to stand up there and sing Amazing Grace exposed before everybody was a pretty extraordinary thing.
Andy Slavitt 37:39
Yeah, and it must have been […] to be a part of, well, thank you for coming out and giving us both a reflection of an extraordinary time and remind folks that Cody’s book is out and available, wherever you want to get it. It’s a cool read for people who want to reflect on that period. But I would say thanks, also for reflecting on the issues, it’s still connected to us today. And as you said, we may be in a moment where it feels like we’ve taken steps in the wrong direction from progress. But it’s only through hard work, that we’re gonna get back and may continue to progress. And everything. Everything worth doing is worth that hard work.
Cody Keenan 38:20
That’s right. And I hope you know, one of the other things in the book is, it’s about the struggle to do good work, even when you have a great team around you, and what it’s like to have a White House populated by people who care and are passionate about this country and what it can be.
Andy Slavitt 38:34
Thanks for being in the bubble. Let me tell you about the shows we have coming up. We’ve got a show about the ballot initiatives on abortion rights, reproductive rights, that are coming up in this election. I think it is something that not a lot of people are aware of, but it is a huge motivator to get folks to the polls. And indeed, several states are going to have the fate of choice on the ballot. Monday, we’ve got Robert Draper, you may know Robert Draper as a New York Times magazine writer, he’s kind of one of the best long form journalists out there. He was inside the Capitol Building on January 6, so we’re going to talk about that and the things that have happened since then. So look forward to all of that. And I wish everybody a great couple days. We’ll be talking to you on Friday.
Thanks for listening to IN THE BUBBLE. We’re a production of Lemonada Media. Kathryn Barnes, Jackie Harris and Kyle Shiely produced our show, and they’re great. Our mix is by Noah Smith and James Barber, and they’re great, too. Steve Nelson is the vice president of the weekly content, and he’s okay, too. And of course, the ultimate bosses, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs, they executive produced the show, we love them dearly. Our theme was composed by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill, with additional music by Ivan Kuraev. You can find out more about our show on social media at @LemonadaMedia where you’ll also get the transcript of the show. And you can find me at @ASlavitt on Twitter. If you like what you heard today, why don’t you tell your friends to listen as well, and get them to write a review. Thanks so much, talk to you next time.