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The brain behind Obama's speeches

Adam Frankel, a 29-year-old responsible for oratories on healthcare, the West Virginia mine explosion and more, dismisses criticism that the president's prose has become uninspiring.

September 03, 2010|By Peter Nicholas, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — A president governs in prose, but every now and then some poetry slips through.

Speaking in West Virginia after an explosion killed 29 coal miners, President Obama talked about the victims: "Most days they would emerge from the dark mine, squinting at the light. Most days, they would emerge, sweaty, dirty, dusted with coal. Most days, they would come home. Most days, but not that day."

The words came from Adam Frankel, a young White House speechwriter. Over the last 20 months he has developed a niche in death and disaster, a specialist in language that assuages grief.

"The first thing we do when prominent people pass away, after we mourn their losses, is we call in Adam to begin work on the appropriate remarks," said White House senior advisor David Axelrod.

Frankel has written speeches for the president honoring police officers killed on duty. He wrote the eulogy that Obama gave for Sen. Robert C. Byrd. And when Obama was asked to make remarks at the funeral service for civil rights activist Dorothy Height, Frankel got the assignment.

He began working for Obama's presidential campaign in 2007, alongside speechwriters Jon Favreau and Ben Rhodes. They were deemed brilliant when Obama was winning caucuses. Now, with the president's approval rating plummeting, the White House faces mounting scrutiny and speechwriters aren't immune. A president who rose to office on the strength of his eloquence is facing criticism for delivering speeches that lack memorable turns of phrase — speeches that fail to inspire people to listen and act on what they hear.

Frankel brushes off the critique. He describes an Obama speech as a reasoned argument that hangs together from start to finish. Points build on one another in logical sequence. Swap in a spicy phrase just to get a headline and the speech falls apart.

"I once helped a political figure whose aide said to me that speeches should be sound bites slung together," Frankel said. "What I admire about Obama in terms of his rhetoric is his insistence on preserving the integrity of a speech as a speech. Not jamming in sound bites…if they don't work."

***

With oval-rim glasses and closed-cropped brown hair, Frankel, a Princeton graduate, seems older than 29. He speaks softly and favors conservative suits and ties.

He comes from a family with deep roots in Washington politics and government. His father worked for the United Nations in Washington and still does consulting work for U.N. agencies. His great uncle is former FCC Chairman Newton Minow, who in a speech gave one of the most searing indictments of television, calling it "a vast wasteland."

Paternal grandfather Stanley Frankel wrote speeches for former Democratic presidential candidates Adlai Stevenson, Robert F. Kennedy and George McGovern. None went on to become president. So after the younger Frankel finished up a stint in Sen. John F. Kerry's failed presidential campaign in 2004, he got some teasing from his family.

"The joke was I was upholding the proud family tradition of working for losing Democrats," he said.

During the Kerry campaign, Frankel met Favreau, a connection that would prove important. After the election, Frankel completed his master's degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He also did research for Ted Sorensen, John F. Kennedy's chief speechwriter, who was then writing a memoir. When the Obama presidential campaign ramped up in early 2007, Favreau was made chief speechwriter. His first hire: Frankel.

Stanley Frankel didn't live to see it, but on Nov. 4, 2008, his grandson broke the family streak of writing for failed Democratic candidates. The new president hired a stable of writers but kept the threesome — Favreau, Frankel and Rhodes — as the nucleus of his speechwriting team.

Frankel works out of an office next door to the White House along with four other writers. His work space is cluttered with old newspapers, magazines and edited speech drafts. He is a walking anthology of Kennedy quotes — useful to the team — and keeps a bust of the 35th president on his desk.

"He channels the Kennedy brothers," Rhodes said.

Years of immersion in Kennedy-era records will do that.

***

Each week Frankel writes one or two speeches, some of which deal with routine policy. But the White House seems to grasp his interests and divvies up assignments accordingly. Axelrod said that Frankel isn't the first option for a campaign-style speech. But when a speech calls for a historical reference or carries a moral component, Frankel often gets tapped.

Before sitting down to write, he consults clergymen and scholars. A common Frankel device is to work in a quote from the Bible. Speaking to a police memorial service in May, Obama closed with a verse from the Book of Proverbs. "The wicked flee when no man pursueth; but the righteous are as bold as a lion."

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