Many books have been written about the pressure cooker effect of working in the White House. But as chief speechwriter during some of the most pivotal days of President Barack Obama’s time in office, Cody Keenan has a unique story to tell. In Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America, Keenan recalls an unimaginably intense week and a half during which the Supreme Court issued decisions on same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act and a white supremacist murdered nine Black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Keenan’s job was to help craft remarks that met the moment. What could President Obama say on gun violence that he hadn’t said after Sandy Hook, Aurora and so many other mass shootings? How would he frame a historic court decision that either affirmed or denied LGBTQ+ individuals’ right to marry their partners? And how would he respond to the result of yet another challenge to his signature health care legislation?
Keenan divides his story into chapters, one for each day. It’s an extremely effective approach that adds tension to an already powerful story. Along the way, readers get a fascinating backstage pass to Keenan’s easy writing partnership with President Obama, an unparalleled writer and communicator in his own right who made every first draft better. Keenan also vividly describes daily life in the West Wing: a blur of meetings, emails and deadlines that started early and sometimes ended well after midnight. In particular, we spend a lot of time with Keenan as he hunches over his computer in his windowless office, where the light was “permanently neglected—a jaundiced fluorescence that never varied a wavelength.” (Most West Wing offices are anything but glamorous, as it turns out, and White House doctors actually supplied Keenan and his team with vitamin D pills to counteract the gloom of what he called “the Speechcave.”)
It’s no spoiler to say that the Supreme Court upheld the legality of the Affordable Care Act and affirmed the right to marry. (Who can forget the White House lit up in rainbow colors that night?) And of course, President Obama’s speech at the Charleston memorial will long be remembered for his impromptu performance of “Amazing Grace.” What’s fresh here is Keenan’s wry, occasionally self-deprecating recollection of his role in these historic events. No matter your political persuasion, Grace is a generous, lively and worthwhile read.