‘Throw them out’: Former speechwriter for Barack Obama motivates students to challenge system

When the former director of speechwriting for President Barack Obama visited Wichita State, he said young people frustrated with politicians should “throw them out.”

“Now, by ‘throw them out,’ I don’t mean insurrection,” Cody Keenan said. “I mean, run for something, jump on a campaign, start an advocacy group, be impatient.” 

Keenan visited the university on Thursday, where he answered students’ questions and spoke on his memoir “Grace” as part of the “Craig W. Barton Speaker Series.” 

“I’m on a mission to convince more young people … that a constant stream of cynicism is bad,” Keenan said. “Public service is a worthy vessel for their time, their energy, their talent.”

After serving on Obama’s campaign and White House staff for a decade, Keenan spoke to the sobering nature of politics.

“You also have to be realistic,” Keenan said. “(The Obama administration) didn’t get everything we wanted, but you can’t look at that as a failure.”

According to the Washington Post, throughout his eight years as president, Obama compromised or fulfilled 23 out of 40 of his promises to the country.

As director of speechwriting, most of Keenan’s job entailed working day and night for the former president, writing and editing speeches. 

“I was notorious for sleeping in my West Wing office,” Keenan said. “There was a State of the Union address preview story in the LA Times one year that began with ‘Cody Keenan haunts the basement of the West Wing at all hours.”

Speeches created by the writer ranged from Obama’s commencement address to the 50th anniversary of the Selma Marches

The Selma Marches, a series of three marches, were organized to protest a voting system meant to disenfranchise Black Americans in Alabama. The events at Selma led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“They were demanding the equal treatment they were promised,” Keenan said. “They barely made it across the town bridge before that nonviolent protest was met with batons and tear gas and attack dogs.”

Throughout his book “Grace” and talks at Wichita State, Keenan detailed the work he and Obama went through to refine the speech to commemorate those who protested in 1965.

“I think it was his best speech just because we had a snow day in Washington,” Keenan said. “And it was the only time we ever got to pass five drafts back and forth in a single day, each one getting better than the last.”

The memoir dives through the events from June 17, 2015, to June 26, 2015. 

“I didn’t want to write a memoir when I left the White House because I was too young,” Keenan said. “So I wrote about 10 days of June 2015 that began with a mass shooting in Charleston and  ended with Obama’s eulogy in Charleston.’

The memoir also details monumental Supreme Court decisions in that 10 days: like the fate of Obamacare and marriage equality.

“It was this insanely packed 10 days that went into all these questions that we’d left unanswered since our founding about racism, violence, bigotry, inequality,” Keenan said.

Keenan spoke briefly on politics now, saying he doesn’t “like being partisan.”

“But if we’re being honest, the parties are not the same,” Keenan said. “Where is you had our greatest Republican President Abraham Lincoln fight to keep the Union together, you now have Republicans in Congress asking for secession, and you have a Republican president who encouraged his supporters to swarm the Capitol.”

In his memoir, Keenan wrote about Obama’s use of Twitter, writing, “he didn’t have the ability to Tweet from his own phone, only morons would allow a president to do that.” 

Over the course of his career, former President Donald Trump has been known for his excessive, and often controversial, use of Twitter.

“Speech writing is thinking before you speak,” Keenan said. “Tweeting is speaking before you speak.”

Keenan also referenced Kansas’ primary last summer when the right to abortion was on the ballot.

“And now, the state legislators’ reaction is to go even further and try to ban abortion starting at fertilization, which no woman knows they’re pregnant at that point.

Before the conclusion of his time at Wichita State, Keenan returned to his former point about young people being the future of politics.

“I tell young people to just get in there and don’t overthrow it violently, overthrow it by winning a bunch of elections and change things that way,” Keenan said. “Government is not some alien entity … it’s made up of people.”