Obama’s Ghost

He got there in 2002, his junior year, when he was named one of the 32 Holy Cross students who would work in an internship program in DC. That spring, Favreau was assigned to the press office of Senator John Kerry, where he quickly made an impression. When Gary DeAngelis, the Holy Cross professor who ran the program, traveled to Washington to check in on the interns, Kerry aides pulled him aside. "They said, ‘This Favreau kid is really incredible,’" DeAngelis remembers. Among other things, the 20-year-old Favreau had helped ghostwrite several newspaper op-ed pieces that appeared under Kerry’s name. "Our students do significant work—not just answering telephones and photocopying," DeAngelis says. "But this was pretty unusual. In 22 years running the program, I never saw anything like that."

That fall, Favreau went back to Worcester for his senior year. He eventually won a prestigious Truman Fellowship and was picked to give the college commencement address, his first big speech.

That speech is now available through the Holy Cross website, a fact that seems to flummox the writer ("I never thought anyone would see that ever again") and earned him some teasing from colleagues. It is a good speech for a college student, at once respectful and witty, sentimental and sincere without a hint of treacle. In the address, Favreau makes clear that he had been seduced by his time in the capital. "I loved the excitement," he said, "the heated political debate, and meeting all those famous people—senators, Supreme Court justices, and those esteemed political-talk-show hosts who relieve their guests of the burden of finishing their own sentences."

Though his speech would focus on the noble notion of making a difference in small ways—on the local school board, through volunteering—Favreau had a bigger vision for himself. "Somewhere along the way," he told his classmates, "I made up my mind that one day I would return to that city as an elected representative."

He wasn’t away for long. After graduating, he landed a job with Kerry’s campaign press office, which was in presidential campaign mode. At first he simply compiled news summaries, but an opportunity appeared quickly. "It was a dark moment in the Kerry campaign," remembers Andrei Cherny, who’d been a speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore and became a Kerry policy adviser and the campaign’s director of speechwriting. Howard Dean had come out of nowhere and looked as if he would push Kerry out of the race. There were lots of defections. "We needed a full-time speechwriter," Cherny says, "and we had a hard time finding someone to jump on board."

Favreau, who then worked in a cramped office with Cherny, had given him that Holy Cross commencement speech as a joke. Cherny thought it good enough to earn Favreau a promotion. He told him, "Okay, you’re going to be assistant deputy speechwriter." By the end of the campaign, Favreau was Kerry’s chief speechwriter.

But John Kerry was no Barack Obama. And after a bruising and bitter campaign, Favreau found himself unemployed and pissed off, wondering if he should leave Washington. "The Kerry campaign had beaten him down," says DeAngelis. "He was fed up with whole scene, and ready to leave Washington and go back to grad school. It was interesting listening to him talk—someone so young who’d become disenchanted so quickly."

Time hasn’t softened Favreau’s feelings about 2004. "By the end there was so much infighting, backstabbing—so much crap. And I was thinking, ‘This system does not work.’ The fact that we could lose based on what really seemed [to be] small stuff that was blown up.

"Obama," he says, "was so much different."    

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  • Suz

    Great story…what an amazing talent! If you want to read the original interview and story in Favreau’s alumni magazine (referenced in this article), check out http://bit.ly/64nzoE

  • Ozzie

    Adapting to th style of the speaker is crucial in good spechwriting. He did it and does it.