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'Thanks, Obama': The Upside/Downside of Life as Non-Essential White House Personnel

Applying for a public service job? Put "sense of humor" at the top of your resume.

The only people who should be writing memoirs about their time in the White House are the speechwriters. Most of the time when people are reading books about the presidency, they are looking for interesting tidbits and facts. Speechwriters actually have access to almost no useful or new facts about the White House. What they do know is what it's like to grind away as a public servant day in and day out. Probably 90 percent of everything said by every president ever was actually written by speechwriters. They are the great unsung heroes of American politics. Rather than mining these type of memoirs for facts, we should be expecting the memoirist to be a competent writer. The main thing about speechwriters is, well, they know how to write.

Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years

David Litt


Sep 2017

Amongst the speechwriters, there are a few different species. One of them as the head speechwriter, which is the Rob Lowe character from Aaron Sorkin's beloved Democratic fairy tale, The West Wing. Then there's the guy in charge of providing spirited poetry, those couple of lines that ring throughout history. Then there's the guy who's capable of processing very large amounts of boring infrastructure research into digestible pieces on an exceedingly short timeline. Then there's the rhetorical handyman, brushing up a stump speech template by changing out Ohio for Michigan and putting an extra comma in the right place before a speech gets loaded into the teleprompter. And then there's the guy who writes the jokes, and that's David Litt. If you want to read a White House memoir, I simply can't think of a better person to do the writing than down to earth funnyman Litt.

He calls Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years a speechwriter's memoir, but really it's far more broadly about life as a public servant. Litt used to work at The Onion, and then one day on a long flight he watched Obama give a speech on television. He was hooked, and after working on the election campaign he ended up as a low-level speechwriter. By the end of Obama's second term, he had gained significantly more footing in the food chain and this gave him insight into, among other things, why you must not tell the president that his hair is about to literally catch on fire and why you must tell the president that he looks like Hitler in a particular photograph. So there are some very funny and totally great anecdotes in here that are sort of worthless if you're trying to gather actual information behind the policy-making and leadership conundrums of presidential politics.

But Litt applies sense of humor to his own life as much as he applies it to dealing with the president, and this is Thanks, Obama's greatest asset as a memoir. Litt knows that ultimately he is nonessential personnel, as a government shut down once so pointedly reminded him. There's no shortage of people waiting in line to become presidential speechwriters. Obama didn't even know Litt's name until most of the way through his first term, because that's the nature of each of their jobs. But of course Litt isn't doing the work for a slap on the back from the president. Thanks, Obama is exemplary of the attitude one should have as a public servant:

"This, I was realizing, is what it really means to work at the White House. Ping-ponging between emotional extremes, I had finally arrived at my inner common ground. I was in paradise and limbo. Indispensable and disposable. Defined by process and purpose. Washington was in the grip of unbreakable fever, yet there was nowhere I'd rather be. Was my job as wonderful as I'd imagined when I'd first walked through the gates? Of course not. But it was also more than enough" (206).

Substitute "a public high school" for "White House" and that's exactly the sentiment most veteran teachers express. As a high school English teacher who could've very well ended up taking a totally different course in life and becoming a high school History teacher, I often day dream about a parallel universe where instead my career took an even stranger path and landed me in the shoes of Litt, in the Oval Office as a speechwriter to a Democratic president. I went into Thanks, Obama to use it as a sort of test case for whether or not my dream of being a speechwriter was actually viable and furthermore still desirable, and what I learned from Litt—which genuinely shocked me—is the things that I would love about being a speechwriter are already the things I love about being a high school English teacher. That sense of accomplishment, that calling to public service, that ability to make big differences based on little things I do throughout my day and the way they aggregate for my audience over time—Litt and I are already barking up the same tree. I've often thought that being a high school teacher has the same type of pacing or vibe as working in an emergency room, or in a firehouse, and now I know that actually working in a high school is also kind of the same as working in the White House.

Public service is a frantic beast. The particulars of any given day often suck. After having suffered an especially nasty diatribe by phone from a Hollywood big shot in response to an issue over which Litt had no actual decision-making power, Litt reflects:

"Time that might have been spent on issues that truly mattered was spent emailing publicists instead. Where did that place me on the scale of moral flabitude? Was putting all that effort into pleasing one powerful person really the right thing to do? But what if I looked at it a different way? Were a few hours of my time worth placating someone who paid the salaries of organizers in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio? What if those organizers swung an election? What if that election got Zoe Lihn her heart surgery? What if that surgery saved her life? This, I had begun to realize, was politics. Sometimes the answer depends entirely on the questions being asked" (146).

Look, only a few dozen people can truly identify with Barack Obama's position in this world. As for the rest of us? Call me hopey and changey, but I'm picking up what David Litt is laying down. This "merely funny memoir of an unknown speechwriter" is a profound call to any type of public service. Just know that if you're going to do it, you've got to do it with a sense of humor.


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