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Episode 270: Obama’s Former Speechwriter

“[President Obama] knew who I was, but he knew who a lot of people were,” David Litt, a former speechwriter for the president, told me in this podcast.

He wrote speeches for the president. Now he writes for “Funny or Die”. And before the White House, David wrote for “The Onion”. His style is satirical, humorous and self-deprecating. When Obama made you laugh, there’s a chance it was really David Litt.

So I asked him, “What’s the funniest thing you wrote that you were happy the president said?”

“Oh man, it doesn’t sound that funny when I say it, but, it got at a truth about politics that we probably could have expressed otherwise,” he said.

The joke was told at the 2013 Correspondents dinner. Obama said, ‘I know Republicans are still sorting out what happened in 2012, but one thing they all agree on is they need to do a better job reaching out to minorities. And look, call me self-centered, but I can think of one minority they could start with.”

Humor helps us tell the truth. And it helps us remember the truth. And sometimes it just gives us a break from the chaos.

Like the time Reagan needed surgery after getting shot. He said to the surgeon, “I hope you’re a Republican.”

And everyone remembers that.

“You don’t have to be the president’s right-hand man or woman to contribute to your country,” David said. “I mean, you certainly can be and those are important stories, but I wanted to write a book about this other side of public service.”

So I wondered, could I do it? Could I write for a president?

And how did he transition from “The Onion” to the Oval?

“In America, your place in history isn’t determined for you,” David said. It’s not determined by where you’re born or who your parents are. “You make your own place in history as an American.”

When Obama first became a senator, a reporter asked him, “What will be your mark in history?” The young Barack Obama laughed and said, “I haven’t even sat at my desk yet.”

Then he repeated this story at a commencement speech in 2005. (I’m paraphrasing.) But he told the students, “You haven’t sat at your desk yet… but you still have a choice.”

I wondered how he did that… how he connected this small part of his personal history to this larger idea of making your mark.

“It’s called the ladder of meaning,” David told me. “I forget who coined the phrase, but at the bottom of the ladder are basic details and at the top of the ladder are big values.”

“One of my favorite speeches is the speech Martin Luther King delivered the night before he was shot. He talks about surviving an assassination attempt. A deranged woman, stabbed him with a letter opener. It almost got to his heart. Doctors told him that if he sneezed, he would die. This got out in the press and he got a letter from a nine year old, white girl who said, ‘I just wanted to let you know I’m glad you didn’t sneeze.’”

Then Martin Luther King gives his speech about the progress of civil rights. “He prefaces everything with saying, ‘I too am glad I didn’t sneeze because If I had sneezed I wouldn’t have been able to tell you all about a dream that I had.’”

“He’s connecting this very meaningless moment (a sneeze) with these incredibly important national events.”

It was beautiful. He used imagery. “I’ve been to the mountain top.” He used passion and love. He used the top of the ladder and the bottom.

This episode isn’t about politics. It’s about how words make history. And with every new word, you can make your own history, too.

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