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Writing lines for Obama, mixing comedy and hope

Book review of 'Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years'

R Eric Thomas | NYT 

The author, David Litt (centre), with Barack Obama at the White House. Courtesy: White House
The author, David Litt (centre), with Barack Obama at the White House. Courtesy: White House

What becomes of hope? After the cheers die down and the confetti is swept up, what happens to the initial rush of excitement that a candidate can inspire?

In David Litt’s memoir, Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years, this question is framed as a kind of love story: a Call it, perhaps, “When Speechwriter Met Speech.” Litt winningly details his ascent from campaign volunteer, flushed with the passion of early infatuation, to world-weary member of Barack Obama’s senior speechwriting staff. While it has all the trappings of a coming-of-age tale set inside the Beltway, Litt’s aims are grander. The speechwriter is not just a speechwriter; the speech is never just a speech. “Every speech is a speech about America,” Litt writes. “Every audience is the entire United States.”

In Thanks, Litt takes stock of the administration’s legacy as someone who dedicated a portion of his life to it and, more important, as someone who believed in it. While he frames himself as a simple romantic comedy hero — wide-eyed, a bit hapless, prone to slapstick — he wrestles with larger ideas of optimism in the face of cynicism.

If this conflict has an antagonist, it is the spectre of misplaced hope, personified by the imagined voice of Sarah Palin that exists in Litt’s head. In a storytelling flourish that is too cute by half, Litt outsources the central question to a fictionalised Palin (“How’s that whole hopey, changey thing workin’ out for ya?”), whom he likens to “a fairy godmother who hates me.”

But Thanks, is not about Sarah Palin. Perhaps surprisingly, it is also not about Barack The presidency figures heavily as Litt tracks his own journey. But the man himself only makes guest appearances. Litt explains the structure of the administration, and Obama’s absence from the action of the book, by comparing the White House to the Death Star from Star Wars: “Just because Darth Vader is the public face of the organisation doesn’t mean every storm trooper gets one-on-one time.”

THANKS, OBAMA: My Hopey, Changey White House Years; Author: David Litt; Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins; Pages: 310; Price: $27.99

THANKS, OBAMA: My Hopey, Changey White House Years; Author: David Litt; Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins; Pages: 310; Price: $27.99
As one might expect from the lead speechwriter for four White House Correspondents’ Dinners, Litt is a funny and skillful storyteller. His humour is safe more than edgy, but what he lacks in zingers he makes up for in brilliantly observed descriptions. Take, for example, his explanation of the difference between the offices in the White House with the offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. One has “rooms best described as ‘robber baron-chic’”; the other called to mind “the world’s most Type A sweatshop.”

When, however, Litt’s journey dovetails with the more historical, headline-grabbing elements, the memoir soars. Many events, like the death of Osama bin Laden, occurred outside of Litt’s purview in the White House, and so he is unable to offer much additional insight. But after Obama’s re-election, Litt’s position is elevated and the book’s narrative engine receives a major boost. A chapter titled “Bucket”, about a dramatic change in Obama’s approach to messaging that coincides with Litt’s promotion, is particularly excellent. It crackles with insights into political processes, coloured by human reactions and the comedic foibles one has come to expect.

Litt was instrumental in bringing the comedian Keegan-Michael Key to the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner as Luther, Obama’s Anger Translator. In the first 48 hours, Litt recalls, a Facebook clip of the performance was viewed 35 million times. “On some level, every White House staffer is an alchemist,” he writes, reflecting on his highest-profile achievement. “You arrive at the building full of faith in miracles, striving to craft something flawless and shiny from the leaden scraps of real-world events.”

Thanks, is similarly alchemical, wringing comedy, pathos and a nation’s hope out of one man’s stumble through the halls of power. While the first half of the is enjoyable, the second half is masterly, rising to a crescendo that is as rousing as, well, a particularly inspiring campaign speech. 
 

© 2017 The New York Times

First Published: Fri, September 29 2017. 23:28 IST
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