Obama's former speechwriter, Ridgefield native details 10 days of presidency in bestselling book

RIDGEFIELD  — These days, the word "Grace" is often on the lips of former town resident Cody Keenan — a former speechwriter for former President Barack Obama. His 2-year-old-daughter Grace keeps him busy, and his memoir, with the same name, has just become a bestseller.  

Keenan, who worked for Obama for 14 years, started his own speech writing company last year, called Fenway Strategies. He also teaches speech writing at Northwestern University.

Keenan, 41, a Manhattan resident who graduated from East Ridge Middle School and Ridgefield High School, will come to the Ridgefield Library at 7 p.m.  Oct. 28 to talk abut his book called "GRACE: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America."

The book details 10 days in 2015 during Obama's presidency that covers several key events in history including the murder of nine Black worshippers in a Charleston, S.C. church by a white supremacist, the Supreme Court decisions on the right to health care for working families and the right for same-sex couples to marry. It ends with a eulogy Obama gave where he sang "Amazing Grace" prior to reading a speech Keenan helped write.

At the library, he'll chat with two of his former Ridgefield High School English teachers  — Bob Cox (who is retired) and Kathy Wassall, who still teaches at RHS. He will also answer questions and sign his book.
"All these massive seismic events in America happened over the same 10 days, and they all spoke to who we are as a country and what we believe in.
Do we believe in equality? Do we believe that people have a right to health insurance? Do we believe that gay people should be allowed to get married? All those things kind of came to the fore(front) in this extraordinary short span," Keenan said.
He said one of the main points of the book is "how difficult change is" and "how long democracy takes."

"All the events in the book, whether it's marriage equality or expanding health care  — those are the results of decades of effort on behalf of lots and lots of advocates and activists and presidents, and it takes a long, long time," he said.

He said while the 10 days he wrote about did not change America in any particular way, "they answered a lot of questions about who we are."

Writing for Obama

Keenan said Obama is an "extraordinary writer on his own" and would work very closely with Keenan on all his speeches. 

"I wrote hundreds of pages with him. But I would never claim credit for actually writing any on my own," Keenan said. "He was always very actively involved."

When there was a particularly important speech coming up, Keenan was up many nights, writing under stress.

"I'd probably pull maybe six all-nighters each year, depending on how big the speeches were," he said. "We always had to agonize over every speech but one where you knew tens of millions people would be watching ... those are always more fraught and those are always more stressful."

When writing speeches for Obama, Keenan didn't go at it alone.

"I had a team of eight speechwriters  — two focused on national security, two wrote for the First Lady and then the other four of us kind of wrote on everything else. As the chief speech writer, I edited everybody's work before it went to the president," he said.

After completing an early draft of his book, he showed it to Obama  — "not for his approval. I just wanted him to know what was in there. And he had some really great feedback," Keenan said.

Early influences

Keenan said Wassall, who was Keenan's 11th grade English teacher, was the first person to give him constructive criticism on his writing  — something which he said he highly appreciated and never forgot.

"Nobody had taken the time to tell me what I've been doing wrong in my writing until her," Keenan said. "She patiently sat me down and worked through every single edit  — much in the same way President Obama would a few years later."
"It was the breadth of her work over the course of that year, walking us through the right way to write constantly, and hammering it into our heads —That just kind of sticks with you," he said. "(Obama's) edits in speeches would remind me of her all the time."

He added, "I don't know if I still have an edited copy of the paper that I wrote for Kathy Wassall. But if I can find it, I can probably hold it up next to one that Barack Obama edited and you'll see that they're actually pretty similar."

Keenan said Cox, who was his 12th grade advanced placement English literature teacher, taught him how to be "a more thoughtful, more critical, more expansive reader."

He said the two of those teachers together "really set me on this course."

Return to the neighborhood

Keenan said it will be really fun to be back in Ridgefield and visit some of his old haunts.

"I got to go back to the (Ridgefield) Symphony (Orchestra) last year but other than that, I haven't been back in a long time. The White House just kind of removes you from life for a while. You're just sort of married to your job," he said. "You drift away from people so it'd be nice to get back."

His first job was at Chez Lenard's hot dog stand on Main Street, "So, I will absolutely be going back there to get a hot dog," he said.

Keenan said to succeed as a speech writer, "you need to have a love of writing but you also need to have a deep reservoir of empathy. You need to be able to understand a wide variety of audiences that'll be listening and what their lives are like and what their hopes and dreams are and what their concerns might be, and that requires a lot of active reading."

He said he has already achieved what was on his bucket list.

"I got to be chief speech writer in the White House. I have a great speech writing company with 16 incredible speech writers. I teach speech writing at Northwestern University to really wonderful students, and we have a brand new 2 year old so I get to be a dad and a teacher and a mentor," he said. "Nothing could be better than that."