JTA – He was only 24 years old, but speechwriter David Litt had already become President Obama’s go-to man for anything considered “Kishke-related”. In Litt’s lingo, that meant he wrote the president’s speeches that aimed to connect with American Jews at the gut level – things like holiday and birthday commemorations, but not, say, Israel or politics. foreign.
This explains Litt’s presence on a Friday night in the White House library in April 2012. A jet-lagged President Obama had just returned from a trip to Asia and the last thing on his schedule was to record a video of welcome for Passover.
“Very good,” Obama said grumpily as he walked into the room, more than two hours late. “A take.”
The president went halfway through Litt’s script, then stopped at a line that mentioned how some in the past have tried to “destroy the Jewish people” in every generation.
“Isn’t that line a little depressing?” asked the president. “What’s the matter? Like ‘Everyone wants us, have matzo.’ “
As it turns out, that’s exactly the case, Litt remembers thinking. That memory – and many more – is recounted in his entertaining new memoir, “Thank You, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years.”
“POTUS had just summed up 5,000 years of Jewish history in just eight words,” writes Litt.
The story continues with Obama – in a move that both frightened and embarrassed the young staff member, the sting worsened because the president was operating sleepless – rewriting the line in about five minutes to “express the same idea, but by far more measured tones.
“This, I was thinking, that’s why he becomes president», Writes Litt.
This was just one of many agonizing moments during Litt’s tenure in the White House, where he began writing speeches for Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett and then White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley. He gradually rose through the ranks of speech-writing and, towards the end of Obama’s first term, he became a special assistant to the president.
Litt’s young age combined with his neurotic Jewish sensibility – likely a product of his upbringing on New York’s Upper West Side – makes “Thank You, Obama” a fun read. The reader gets an inside look at some of the country’s most powerful people through the eyes of a rookie – whose biggest concerns include physically hitting the president while walking the halls of the White House, or unintentionally triggering an international crisis. through a single word abuse. (The first didn’t happen, but the second almost did: in a speech he mistakenly led Obama to compare the dire situation in Syria to the much less dire situation in Kenya.)
The book is 50/50 between Woody Allen, the diary of a millennial nerd, and Aaron Sorkin (the creator and writer of “The West Wing”, a show adored by Litt). The President comes across as the perfect foil for the young staff member – he’s Dean Martin from Litt’s Jerry Lewis – partly because he’s literally the most powerful person in the world, and partly because of his legendary demeanor. calm and cool.
At the beginning of the book, Litt is a recent Yale graduate and Obama fanatic who travels to Ohio to work for the Democratic Party during the 2008 presidential campaign. The book follows Litt’s time in the White House, through the ups and downs of the toughest years of Obama’s presidency – from low polls to shutting down government to passing the Affordable Care Act. As his suggestions for jokes (written for events like the White House Correspondents’ Dinner) impress Obama’s top speechwriters, Litt takes on more responsibility as one of the top comedy speech writers in the team.
Litt meets many of his idols and regularly experiences what he calls “life-changing” moments of triumph, but the work isn’t always glamorous. Litt becomes so stressed that he begins to wear a mouthguard at night to protect his constantly grinding teeth. By the time he leaves work in early 2016, Litt is exhausted, a little bored with his duties and frustrated with fact checkers pointing out something trivial in seemingly every sentence he writes.
With his years in the White House behind him, Litt is much less stressed. He is now a screenwriter and producer for the comedy site Funny Or Die, co-founded by Will Ferrell in 2007.
“I went from wearing a suit every day to being kind of pleasantly surprised if it’s noon and remembered to put on pants,” Litt told JTA.
Funny Or Die’s content is often political in nature – take the Obama-starring episode of “Between Two Ferns,” a satirical interview show hosted by Zack Galifinakis that has been viewed nearly 22 million times.
The gig allowed Litt to stay invested in politics while continuing to flex his comedy writing muscles. Funny Or Die recently worked with groups like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and the League of Conservation Voters on videos.
“The line between culture and politics is blurring quite quickly,” Litt said. “We measure the success of [our] comedy by the number of people taking action for a cause, and it’s not something that would have happened… even 10 years ago.
The line between culture and politics is blurring quite quickly
Litt’s first big break was writing Obama’s speech to the Union for Reform Judaism’s 2011 biennial conference, which was widely regarded as a success. (Haaretz headlined, “Obama speaks Jewish, Republicans don’t.”) And while Jewish culture was Litt’s staple in his job, there were some unique challenges along the way – like having to write several Hanukkah speeches.
Obama’s official Hanukkah reception became so popular that during his second term, the White House decided to host two each year. Since all of Obama’s remarks are being transcribed for the public, Litt could not use the same speech twice for fear that attendees at the second party would think the president was calling it a Jewish holiday.
“You don’t get that by watching ‘West Wing’ or ‘House of Cards’,” Litt said, referring to two shows focused on the political process. “I put it all in Hanukkah speech number one, and now what should I do for Hanukkah speech number two?” “
While Litt – who grew up keeping kosher at home and regularly attended services at Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue – never lost his sense of humor, the president’s Jewish cultural agenda was not quite light, he said. He firmly believes that Obama is genuinely interested in Jewish history and culture, and that Obama’s way of seeing the world (“always asking questions,” with “a real capacity for doubt”) was consistent. to Jewish tradition.
Litt said he often drew inspiration for his speeches from his own Jewish ancestors, many of whom bravely (and, he notes, “illegally”) escaped pogroms in Russia to come to America. He wrote Obama’s speech at the Adas Israel Synagogue in Washington, DC in 2015, as the debate over the Iran nuclear deal worsened his relations with a Jewish ruling class already wary of its Israeli policies. Litt said Obama made more last-minute revisions to this speech than most of his others, in an attempt to sincerely connect with his synagogue audience.
“He saw the history of American Judaism as part of this larger story of a universal struggle for human rights and human dignity, in addition to all of its specific details,” Litt said. “He made that connection, and he wanted to make sure he made that connection publicly.”
As JTA reported at the time, “Most of the spectators in the conservative congregation seemed to clap and cheer, but a significant minority remained silent.”
Obama saw the history of American Judaism as part of this larger history of a universal struggle for human rights and human dignity,
In light of what he witnessed, would Litt dare to call Obama the most Jewish president we’ve ever had?
“In context,” Litt said, “I think that’s absolutely right.”
Although the current political environment is “dangerous,” Litt said – adding that Trump’s campaign was the first time he felt “scared” as a Jew in America – he wrote the book in part to incite people to get involved in political campaigns.
“[If] you want to see America reflect the values you grow up with and hold dear, then you have to be involved in politics and public service in some way, ”he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever do something as rewarding as the job I’ve done.”