My Hopey, Changey White House Years

(A Speechwriter’s Memoir)

by David Litt

Read 2018-9-28, Rating 8/10

“The fierce urgency of now”

“Tiredness is just a feeling”


I did receive, however, was a string of conveniences, do-overs and encouragements. My parents could help me pay rent for a few months out of school. I went to a university lousy with successful DC alumni. No less significantly, I avoided the barriers that would have loomed had I belonged to a different gender or race. Put another way, I had access to a network, whether I was bullshit or not.

As a speechwriter, I learned to use the phrase “permission structure” to describe the conditions that allow a choice to be made.

Cheat Day might be the permission structure for a plate of deep fried chicken wings followed by several slices of chocolate cake.

Minesweeper:  At first you can’t get the hang of it, no matter how hard you try? But then everything begins making sense, even at the highest difficulty setting, and the goal you never ever admitted having is suddenly within your reach? It was kind of like that.

[Valerie Jarrett] expects her staff to work as hard as she does.

Let me be absolutely clear… if you do something stupid and end up on the front page of the Post, you will be out of here immediately. I will not ask for your side of the story. I will not give you a second chance. I will not feel sorry for you. In fact, I will never think about you ever again.

I had never worked so hard, in my life. In the speech writing world, holding the pen means bearing responsibility for a set of remarks. My first week at the White House, I held the pen on seven speeches in five days. It was not uncommon for me to edit a single speech four times in an eight hour span.

If I did my job flawlessly, no one would notice… my mistake would be national news.

Each day brought a once in a lifetime experience. but each night brought intensely literal dreams about work.

It seemed unlikely that I was the best “we the people” could do.

It was as if a tiny bureaucratic angel was whispering in my ear “Stay in your lane. Stay in your lane.”

If you’re working with a writer, chances are you’re an expert. And if you’re an expert, chances are you’re boring. You can’t help it. The more you know about a subject, the harder it is to express your knowledge in a way the rest of us understand. As professional dilitants, speechwriters use their short attention spans to your advantage. Sifting through the dense muck of facts and anecdotes, they find nuggets worth something for the outside world.

POTUS didn’t often go off script. Occasionally he would cock his head slightly to the side and pause… If you knew what to look for, you could see a dialog play out in his head.

You know, this line isn’t cutting it, i bet i can come up with something better

You sure? maybe the speechwriter knows something you don’t

He’s how old? 25? Seems unlikely.

Then the President would deliver something on the fly, and nine times out of ten, the crowd would break into applause.

Right after his remarks were finished, President Obama would give the podium a satisfying little thump with his right hand. This was his way of declaring victory. A quiet but unmistakable ‘nailed it.’

Write Long Sentences… Barack Obama could control a run on sentence the way a racecar makes turns on speed, emphasizing, pausing, finding beats within the words and phrases, not because of the punctuation, but thanks to of his innate talent as an orator, his voice rising and falling and carrying you along with it, so that by the time he reached his final crescendo, you felt bigger than yourself, and better than yourself, and part of, and proud of, and lucky to be alive, in the greatest country on earth. POTUS speeches were fun.

What he did, more quickly than anyone, was strip away complicated issues to their essence, and make the most of the information obtained.

Put yourself in the path of lightning. – Valerie Jarrett

He made mistakes, he had blind spot, sometimes he even let us down, but he never gave up.

Between Two Ferns

President Obama had term for being stuck in these cycles negative news coverage… “stuck in the barrel” and he treated it like how kindergarten teachers treat an epidemic of head lice. Deeply unpleasant, happens once or twice a year, eventually goes away.

We were experiencing less violence than almost any generation in history, but we were witnessing more violence than ever before.

Campaign People saw Policy People as eggheads without street smarts. Policy People saw Campaign People as simpletons with short attention spans.

I was a Campaign Person. I loved the collective intake of breath the moment a candidate entered the stage. i loved the crowd roar over words like freedom and citizenship. Most of all I loved winning.

“I know, because I won both of them” Obama

The President’s energy was contagious.

So was it worth it? This I think is the essential question facing anyone with a tough job and President Obama’s was the toughest of all. He had chosen the profession with eyes open.

I was not yet a prisoner of 1600 Pennsylvania. I still loved my job. But i didn’t always like my job and as time passed the larger the unlikable things loomed.

“We are not perfect, but we have the capacity to be more perfect. Mile after mile, step after step.” Obama


Everyone should go into public service.

Am I doing enough good?

Choose service instead.


The list of things Obama world taught me:

  • The secret to solving big problems is knowing which little problems to ignore.
  • Decisions are only as good as the decision making process.
  • Generosity is a habit and not a trait.
  • All human beings, even Presidents, look goofy chewing gum
  • There are no grownups. Once you reach a certain age, the world has no more parents, but it contains a truly shocking number of children.