Cody Keenan: RHS quarterback to Obama’s lead writer
Long before writing President Obama’s State of the Union address, Cody Keenan was selling hot dogs at Chez Lenard’s on Main Street.
The Obama administration’s director of speechwriting and former Ridgefield High School quarterback moved to town from Chicago in the eighth grade.
“It was an extraordinary place to grow up and go to high school in,” Keenan told The Press.
The 1998 RHS graduate said that in some ways being part of a football team prepared him for his role with the 44th president of the United States.
“I’m a better speechwriter than I ever was a quarterback,” he said, “but you do have to manage a team, you do have to deal with the unexpected, and you have to lead.”
Working for Barack Obama was Keenan’s first speechwriting job.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he said. “I didn’t know I wanted to be a speechwriter until I was four years out of college.”
After graduating from Northwestern University, Keenan headed to Washington, D.C., where he lived with friends and worked –– for no pay –– in the mailroom of Sen. Ted Kennedy.
For four years, he worked his way up the ladder, serving as Kennedy’s legislative aide before deciding to attend Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to continue his education.
During the summer of 2007 he interned for the speech department of the Obama campaign, joining the team after graduation.
When Keenan’s predecessor, Jon Favreau, left, it was the RHS grad’s determination that caught the president’s attention.
“I was a quick study, and not everybody wanted to stay around,” Keenan said.
“Every time I went to the White House, I turned the lights off.”
Having Barack Obama read your drafts can be intimidating.
“At first, it was scary because he’s so good at it,” Keenan said. “But it’s precisely because he’s so good at writing that his feedback is important.”
On small speeches, Keenan would make one draft and give it to the president.
“Most of those are kind of your day-to-day small message, so you go through one draft before giving it to him,” he said.
Other speeches, like the one in Selma on the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery marches, would take several drafts before reaching Obama.
Then the editing process began.
“He poured himself into that speech,” said Keenan. “We were lucky enough to have a snow day where the government was shut down, so he and I met and went over it the entire day.”
That speech remains Keenan’s favorite.
“It’s the purest encapsulation of patriotism — what it means to be an American,” he said.
“And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place? What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people — unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many, coming together to shape their country’s course?”
All Keenan’s speeches were written in a close collaboration with Obama.
They reviewed and revised so much that the president “already knows the speech by heart before it gets to the teleprompter,” Keenan said.
Although it’s never easy to create the final product, some are harder than others.
“Newtown was the toughest moment,” Keenan said.
“The day it happened –– it was the worst day.”
He first gained national recognition for his work on the president’s speech in Arizona during the aftermath of the 2011 Tucson shooting.
Keenan has been praised for his ability to write about tragedy in ways that honor the victims and uplift the nation.
“I don’t know that I ever mastered it,” he said.
“You want to memorialize the victims, give people a good sense of who they were; he [Obama] was never content to just stop there. He always wants to impart some larger lesson.”
The first time Keenan got a “C” on an essay was from English teacher Kathy Wassall during his junior year at Ridgefield High School.
“I went up to her after class and said, ‘There must be some mistake,’ and she sat me down and went through every edit she made,” he said.
“She, as much as anyone, made me into a good writer.”
Wassall said Keenan was a member of the first AP English Language and Composition class taught at RHS, and remembers him for his sense of humor.
“Always prepared and a leader in class — I am not surprised that his talents have been recognized,” she said.
Keenan started his new job Jan. 20.
“I will still be working with Obama and we’ll be spending the year writing his new book,” he said.
The contents of the book are classified for now.
Although his family moved to Maryland, Keenan still keeps ties in Ridgefield.
He remains close with his best friends from high school, some of whom went to his wedding to Kristen Bartoloni last year.
Obama didn’t attend to avoid disruption from his security personnel, but Keenan said the former president invited the families, bridesmaids, and groomsmen to the White House for photos and a little downtime between the ceremony and reception.
“It was a nice moment,” said Keenan.
“He's aware of just how many of us met our significant others while working for him. He feels a little parental toward all of us.”