What It’s Like to Write Speeches for the Conventions

Somewhere in the basements of Philadelphia, wordsmiths are crafting the messages of 2016.

Chris Carlson / AP / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

On September 4, 2012, Stacey Lihn walked across the stage of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her husband, Caleb, followed her, their two young daughters, including 2-year-old Zoe, in tow.

“Like so many moms with sick children, I shed tears and I could breathe easier knowing we have that net below us to catch us if we fall, or if, God forbid, Zoe needs a heart transplant,” Lihn said over the din of the crowd. Her daughter’s congenital heart condition has required a number of surgeries. “Obamacare provides my family security and relief,” she said.

That last line was a hit with the crowd of Democrats, and it was no ad lib. In the audience that night was David Litt, an Obama speechwriter who had been dispatched to Charlotte to write for the convention. Earlier, Litt had helped Lihn prepare for her moment at the podium. “Basically, we had a phone call,” Litt said. “I edited parts of it, and that was her speech. It was all her language.”

Litt, who for five years served as one of the White Houses’ top message crafters, is bullish on the political impact of the conventions. “In Washington, it’s so incredibly easy to act as if politics is a sport for people who aren’t athletic,” Litt said. But after watching Lihn “talk about what an election means, it was impossible to say none of this matters. You can’t watch someone talk about what that means for her, and her daughter, and her family, and say, ‘Oh, this is just a game.’”

Conventions are political carnivals, notable for their chaos, pageantry, and, occasionally, the speeches. In 2004, Barack Obama, then running for the U.S. Senate, made his name with a speech at the DNC in Boston. Other speakers have made less of an impression—and left with their political aspirations forever dimmed.

“It’s kind of this weird mix of pep rally and talent show,” Litt said. “But that matters. ... Everyone thinks of the conventions as less important than ever, but what you can do is combine all these smaller narrative into one bigger, nation-wide narrative. And that can be really special. You can’t do that anyplace else.”

Litt left the White House in January to join the comedy website Funny or Die. I recently spoke with him about political conventions and the people who craft the speeches that define them.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Christopher I. Haugh: Why don’t you start by telling me about how you ended up in Charlotte and what you were up to in the lead up?

David Litt: I was writing speeches for the president out of the Democratic National Committee. Jon Favreau was the chief speechwriter for the president at the time, Cody Keenan was his deputy, and they were writing political speeches in the White House. I was at the DNC as the third person on the campaign side of the president’s speeches, as opposed to the official side.

Haugh: Tell me about speechwriting at the convention. What is it like for a staffer?

Litt: At the conventions you’ve got the candidates, the spouse of the presidential candidate, and you usually have one or two other big names. In this case, Bill Clinton was giving a big speech. Those are the primetime speeches. They are the ones that get the most press. But you also have all these other speeches. I think it was well over 100 people who were speaking from 5 o’clock until 10 o’clock every day. There are five hours a day of speeches, every day, and each speech is only five to seven minutes long. So there’s a whole team of people who are supervising all of those speeches and trying to fit the same message, even though they are not going to be the next day’s news in the way that the president or the vice president’s speech will be.

Most of what you are doing at the convention is you are taking somebody’s words and editing them and moving them around. You are not starting from scratch, except in rare cases, because you are really trying to make sure they sound as much like themselves as possible. But you also want the message to be unified.

Haugh: How do you make sure everyone is hewing to that unified message?

Litt: One of the things that the 2012 campaign really thought carefully about was making sure everyone was on the same page going in. They met with people who were at the highest level of the president’s messaging operation to say, ‘This is where we see this race going; here’s the contrast we need to draw; and, no matter what someone is talking about, we want it to come back to this central argument,’ which, in 2012, was: Are we moving forward or are we moving back? And, also, do we grow the economy from the top down or the middle out? That became our north star. I’m not sure it always works out as well as everyone hopes it will. In 2012, I think it really did work.

Haugh: What were your first impressions of the convention? It seems like it’s total chaos.

Litt: It’s funny. We were in the referees’ locker room in the Charlotte Bobcats arena.

Haugh: What’s that like?

Litt: Crowded. Especially considering there were 15 of us—and we were in there 12, 15 hours a day—in a room that is normally for three referees just to change in. We got there a week before the convention. I was a field organizer before. You show up at a convention, and it is a combination of the hectic pace, the non-stop activity, and the cramped working conditions of field organizing combined with the intellectual process of speechwriting, which made it simultaneously thrilling and unsustainable. I was glad it was only two weeks, but it was also incredibly exhilarating.

Haugh: You were writing for the president beforehand, but I assume at the convention you were mainly writing surrogate speeches. Was it difficult changing voices, having to write for completely different people doing and saying completely different things?

Litt: Some of the best experiences I had over the last five years were with the people I worked with at the convention who were not politicians or celebrities. We had people around America who had been touched by the president’s policies and believed in him. I worked with someone who owned a brewery and a mom in Phoenix whose daughter had a serious heart condition. You spend so much time in Washington thinking about policy, but you don’t get to spend time with people who are living the outcomes of that policy. So it was nice to have a new challenge. It was also nice to take the ideas that were in the president’s speeches and see how you can apply them to someone else’s voice.

Haugh: Did you ever get a chance to get out on the floor?

Litt: Every day around five the speeches start. We had floor passes, so when your speaker was up you’d sneak out and watch them. We were all out when Bill Clinton spoke on Wednesday night. That was one of those moments when you could tell something special was going on. It was hard to find standing room. We were sort of huddled around watching him. We got to watch the president’s speech on Thursday. It was exhausting, but it was incredible.

Haugh: Do you think that these conventions and speeches ultimately matter?

Litt: They matter a lot. First of all, they matter for the individual speakers. Elizabeth Warren gave a speech in 2012. The fact that her speech went well meant a lot for her Senate race in Massachusetts. It also signaled that, if and when she got to the Senate, she would be a force to be reckoned with.

Julián Castro, one of the reasons he is in the conversation about who Hillary will pick for her vice president is not just who he is but the speech he gave in 2012.

Barack Obama gave a speech in 2004 and from then on you knew that this was someone who was going places and had a gift that most people did not have. When we talk about what conventions can do, they can set the direction of a party—Obama being the best example—for years and decades and not just in that election.

On the other hand, you look at someone like Governor Martin O’Malley, who had a really good speaking spot in 2012. If he had delivered an Obama-like speech in that moment, he would have almost certainly had a better chance in 2016 than he ended up having. And so, that can be a big make or break moment.

Those are the keynotes. But even if you are speaking at 7 o’clock on a Tuesday, especially now with YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, this will be a whole other level on social media. That will mean that something doesn’t have to happen in primetime for it to be primetime. If you are a superintendent of schools and you have a 5 o’clock speaking spot on Tuesday, and you give an amazing speech because of the convention, the world will know about it. That’s different than if you give a great speech back home.

Haugh: In the next few weeks, another team of speechwriters will huddle in some referee changing room, or wherever they are going to be, in Philadelphia and Cleveland. Do you have any advice for them?

Litt: The thing about conventions, honestly, is that you don’t need advice about the work. It’s too late for that. You’re not going to become better at speechwriting while you’re there. It’s too hectic for that. So, just find a moment in the chaos and think about how special it is. That we’ve brought all these people together to talk about what this country is and where we want it to go. For all the cynicism about that, it’s pretty cool that America does it.