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The crafting of Obama's Cairo speech to world Muslims

The president worked with dozens but put his own delicate touch onto a blunt address that would grab global attention - and some criticism.

August 02, 2009|Christi Parsons

One group of activists sent a letter urging that human rights get prominent play; the signers were invited in to talk. "We urged them to use the word 'democracy,' " one said.

Other experts warned of pitfalls.

Talking about 9/11 would feed the theory widely believed in the Arab world that the U.S. had staged the attacks to justify military action against Islam. Decrying unequal treatment of women could bring charges of hypocrisy because of U.S. friendship with the likes of the Saudi royal family.

One especially emphatic warning came from a couple of Middle Eastern scholars. Beware of quoting the Koran, they said; the president might sound like he is pandering.

Worse, the complexities of Koranic interpretation might open Obama to ridicule by hostile clerics. Obama would "be playing on the turfs of the religious authorities," said one person who was present. "And then who are people going to believe -- the president of the United States, or the sheik?"

One member of the team would later refer to the group as "the Cairo cell." With the deadline at hand, they had a well-researched, meticulously vetted text. The State Department had blessed it. So had Axelrod and Emanuel.

Everything seemed on track -- until Obama announced his disappointment.

One attendee remembered something curious: At a certain point, Rhodes had stopped scribbling notes and just focused on the president's face.

Later, a friend bumped into the young speechwriter. "He looked relieved," the friend said, "even liberated."

So many voices had been urging caution that, as one team member described it, "we were putting the brakes on ourselves." Freed from those inhibitions, they tackled Obama's detailed edits. Some were line changes. Others, mostly on the backs of pages, were exact text to insert.

The structure itself changed. Instead of flowing prose, they made it read more like a list, with topics dealt with in bullet form -- violent extremism, nuclear disarmament, religious freedom.

That changed the message. It put women's rights on par with the speech's other main points, instead of making it a "throwaway line in the passage about democracy," as one staffer put it.

Democracy got its own bullet point for emphasis.

In the Arab-Israeli passage, they crossed boundaries of political correctness: Jews had been persecuted for centuries, they wrote, and their aspiration for a homeland is "rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied." At the same time, the Palestinian people "have suffered in pursuit of a homeland."

The earlier version hadn't referred to the Holocaust, nor to the denial of it by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Now the team let fly: "Denying that fact is baseless. It is ignorant, and it is hateful.

"Threatening Israel with destruction, or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews, is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of the Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve."

Similarly, regarding Sept. 11, Obama would now bluntly declare, "I'm aware that there's still some who would question or even justify the offense of 9/11. But let us be clear: Al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people on that day. . . . These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with."

References to the Koran changed, too. Instead of tucking quotations deep in the speech, Rhodes followed Obama's admonition to invoke the Islamic holy text more prominently.

Rashad Hussain, a devout Muslim on loan from the White House counsel's office, suggested the passage: "There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another, and to seek common ground. As the Holy Koran tells us, 'Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.' "

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'A musical impulse'

Obama went over the new text on Air Force One as he flew to an overnight stop in Saudi Arabia. As he read, he nodded, pausing now and then to ink in a thought or a suggestion.

That night, at the Riyadh ranch of King Abdullah, Obama had cardamom tea with the Saudi ruler. Emanuel went for a run in the 110-degree heat. Then Obama holed up with him, Axelrod and other senior staffers. Their buffet dinner simmered over cans of Sterno as they studied the text.

At midnight, the door to the staff work space creaked open. The president and his personal aide, Reggie Love, were delivering more changes.

On the two-hour flight to Cairo the next morning, Obama continued to tinker with the words and whisper parts of the speech to himself.

"He's very focused on both content and cadence," said Axelrod, "so he'll move the order of words around in order to get the cadence that he wants. . . . It's almost a musical impulse -- how the words play against each other."

Rhodes would punch each change into his laptop, then walk to the back of the plane and read them to the Arabic translator.

"You've had a tough job," Obama said as they landed in the Egyptian capital.

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