Friday flashback — an Obama speechwriter speaks

What’s it like to write for a president? An Obama speechwriter visited his old business school last week and offered some advice.

an Obama speechwriter

Stephen Krupin’s profile photo on LinkedIn

Now, you’d hardly expect anyone’s speechwriter to bad-mouth the boss—at least not until all the post-Trump memoirs hit the shelves—but I believe Stephen Krupin when he says President Obama was “very easy to work with”:

“People who have only written for Barack Obama are spoiled and don’t know how good they have it.”

I didn’t expect to be moved to tears reading a student newspaper article. But Catherine Kim, Assistant Staff Editor of The Daily Northwestern (guess which school it serves) found the right quote from Krupin to describe the most memorable moment of his time as a White House speeechwriter.

In researching the president’s Memorial Day speech last year, Krupin interviewed veterans and their family members. One of the people he talked to, a woman who’d lost her husband in combat, asked if she could meet President Obama.

Krupin pulled some strings to get her seated in the president’s box at Arlington National Cemetery, where her husband is buried. And when the president mentioned her in the speech, the crowd broke into sustained applause.

“I will never forget that moment,” he said. “I wrote the speech. I could not sit here right now and tell you a single line in that, but I’ll always remember what it felt like when all of Arlington Cemetery stood and clapped for that woman.”

And no, I’m not crying—you are.

Seriously, folks, even when you have a great client, and by all accounts Obama is one, you sweat over the big speeches. You write and rewrite them so many times you think you’ll still be reciting them in your sleep 20 years later. It takes a powerful moment indeed to wipe all that work out of your memory.

An Obama speechwriter and his speech

So I went looking for that speech Krupin wrote. It’s strong, full of detail and stories. Grab some more Kleenex and read the story he’s talking about:

Joshua Wheeler’s sister says he was “exactly what was right about this world. He came from nothing and he really made something of himself.” As a kid, Josh was the one who made sure his brother and four half-sisters were dressed and fed and off to school. When there wasn’t food in the cupboard, he grabbed his hunting rifle and came back with a deer for dinner. When his country needed him, he enlisted in the Army at age 19.

He deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan — 14 times; earned 11 Bronze Stars, four for valor.  Last October, as ISIL terrorists prepared to execute 70 hostages, Josh and his fellow Special Ops went in and rescued them. Every single one walked free. “We were already dead,” one of the hostages said, “then God sent us a force from the sky.” That force was the U.S. Army, including Josh Wheeler.

Josh was the doting dad who wrote notes to his kids in the stacks of books he read. Flying home last summer to be with his wife, Ashley, who was about to give birth, he scribbled one note in the novel he was reading, just to tell his unborn son he was on his way. Ashley Wheeler is with us here today, holding their 10-month-old son, David. (Applause.) Ashley says Josh’s memory makes her think about how can she be a better citizen. And she hopes it’s what other people think about, too. Today, this husband and father rests here, in Arlington, in Section 60. And as Americans, we resolve to be better — better people, better citizens, because of Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler.

The power of stories

It’s not just a story about Ashley Wheeler’s loss. Krupin and Obama don’t portray her as a victim. The story they tell focuses on what she has gained from the inconceivable hardship of losing her husband. And by extension, on what we all might gain from the sacrifice of the many military personnel whose stories never get told.

That’s why I love being a speechwriter. Even when you’re not an Obama speechwriter — even when you write for lesser mortals — you get to take the base materials of words and thoughts and sometimes alchemy happens and they turn into gold. A story you tell makes an impact, maybe changes the world just a little. It’s an extraordinary opportunity we have.

  • politics
  • speeches
  • storytelling