URBANA — President Barack Obama's former chief speechwriter said Wednesday night that Obama's push for a military response to Syria's use of chemical weapons is driven not by politics but by doing the right thing.
"This country has been through a decade of war, and it is very tired of it," said Jon Favreau, a 32-year-old Massachusetts native who left the White House earlier this year. "The president knows that. The president ran as a candidate who was opposed to the war in Iraq. But he also has to think to himself that we have a chemical-weapons accord that governments representing 98 percent of the population signed onto, and we have said, as a country and a world, that if people use chemical weapons, then they must be held accountable.
"What message does it send, not just for today but for the next 10 years, the next generation, if we allow people to use chemical weapons against their own civilians? That's not necessarily popular. That's not winning him any love from folks at home, but sometimes you just have to make the right decision. You're not just thinking what is popular in the polls right now, but what's going to be right if you go back in a few years."
Favreau started his speechwriting career in John Kerry's presidential campaign and joined with Obama soon after the former Illinois state senator was elected to the U.S. Senate.
"People ask me what working with the president is like, and I always think about the man I left in the office when I went to write the very first Obama speech.
"He yelled out to me, 'Favs, I know it's your first speech, and I know that you're nervous, but remember that I'm a writer, too, so I know that sometimes the ideas strike, and sometimes they don't. If you get stuck, just come in tomorrow, and we'll work it through.' And that's how he was for eight years."
No matter how much pressure the president was under, Favreau said, "he never once yelled at me; he never once lost his patience."
The key to Obama's speechmaking, Favreau said, "was surprisingly low-tech." It was to keep his message simple.
Speaking at the Illini Union on the University of Illinois campus, Favreau said he learned that skill from John F. Kennedy's chief speechwriter, Theodore Sorenson.
"I asked him for advice, and he said, 'Your sentences are too long.' And he was right. In public speaking today and in speeches, most sentences are too long. Most speeches are too long, and most people use 10-cent words when a nickel or a penny will do."
Favreau said Obama taught him how to be a good storyteller.
On the night of Obama's election to the presidency, the candidate's staff learned of a 106-year-old Georgia woman named Ann Nixon Cooper who had waited in line for three hours to vote for Obama.
"She was born in a time when she couldn't vote for two reasons, because she was a woman and because she was African-American. So we ended the speech by tracing all this change she had witnessed over the course of her lifetime. Civil rights. Voting rights. Women's rights. Workers' rights."
It became Favreau's job to call Cooper in Atlanta and tell her that Obama wanted to include her in his victory speech.
"And I tell this frail, 106-year-old woman that the man who is about to become the first African-American president of the United States wanted to mention her in his victory speech. She paused for a while, and then she said, 'Will it be on television?'
"I said, yes, it would be on television. And then she asked which channel? And I said, all the channels.
"And then she said, 'I'm so proud of him. I'm so proud of us.' And she started crying. And at that moment, so did I."