At just 24 years old, David Litt became a speechwriter at the White House. Landing such a prestigious job when you've just barely graduated college is pretty impressive, but ironically, Litt never intended to work in politics.
"I was on a plane and we had just began our initial descent," Litt told Seeker's Laura Ling. "And I was channel-surfing on the free airplane cable and I saw this candidate who I had heard of but didn't know a lot about named Barack Obama. By the time that speech was over I was like, 'Never mind, whatever he is doing, I want to be part of that.'"
Litt wasn't just inspired by Obama, he was filled with hope in a way he'd never experienced before. He desperately wanted to be part of the change that this charismatic presidential candidate kept going on about. After moving to Washington D.C. in 2009, Litt began working for a private firm specializing in speechwriting. Then in 2011, the job offer at the White House materialized.
It was there that Litt faced an immense responsibility. "You have to realize how high the stakes are," he told Laura. "We would write speeches knowing that there are people whose full-time job is to pick apart every single word the President says, and sometimes just to take things out of context, and that can be incredibly intimidating."
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As you might expect, speechwriting isn't always as glamorous as the "West Wing" makes it out to be. Political speechwriters often deal with bureaucracy and a lot of red tape, so writing the really important speeches for rallies or televised events can be rather anxiety inducing. Some writers prefer to take on speeches for the less momentous occasions (either that or they have no choice), as Barton Swaim details in his book "The Speechwriter," which chronicles his time writing speeches for Rep. Mark Sanford when he was governor of South Carolina.
Swain wrote speeches for Sanford that he gave at slightly smaller, yet no less glamorous events, like gatherings of the National Square Dancing Society or the grand opening of a Heinz factory. The latter involved a lot of "coming up with stories about ketchup," Swain told the National Journal.
For Litt, his most memorable Obama speeches were for the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner. It was a chance for him to show off Obama's sense of humor, as well as his own. Comedy can be an extremely useful tool for getting people to pay attention and stay engaged. Litt recalls writing speeches on climate change that hardly got any recognition, but once he incorporated Luther the Anger Translator, in a speech, it got 40 million views on Facebook. Litt left the White House in 2015. He's currently working on a book about his experience, entitled "That Hopey, Changey Thing," which will be published by Ecco Press in 2017. He now puts his comedy skills to good use as a head writer and producer for Funny or Die.
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Of course there were many times during his stint at the White House when Litt would experience writer's block, as all good writers do. Whenever he needed a good dose of inspiration, he would go back to that initial speech he watched on the plane in 2008. "Re-watching those words and feeling that sense of both power and responsibility, it keeps you going when you wonder whether it's all making a difference," he told Laura.
But if you're really going to make a difference, the key is believing that it's possible. "For me, all of my rituals are about trying to recapture that feeling I had in 2008," Litt said. "To put you back in that mindset when you're 21, 22 years old, then you're absolutely sure you can change the world and you're pretty sure you can do it tomorrow."
-- Molly Fosco