When Sarah Hurwitz sits down at her laptop, she puts on her noise-blocking headphones and imagines Michelle Obama’s exacting voice in her head.
The voice might say: No, that transition is clumsy. Or: Are we really telling this story in a way that honors these people?
Hurwitz, the first lady’s head speechwriter, has written for the Obamas for eight years and for Michelle Obama exclusively for nearly seven. The two have worked so closely together that nearly every word the first lady has spoken in public has been written or edited by Hurwitz.
“As I write for her now, I’m sort of editing the speech with her voice in my head because she’s given me so much feedback over the years and been so clear about what she wants,” Hurwitz said between sips of water at a Penn Quarter coffee shop two blocks from the White House.
The 38-year-old Harvard Law School grad is an Obama original, one of the few remaining staff members who joined the White House straight from the 2008 campaign. She started that cycle, though, as Hillary Clinton’s chief speechwriter. Two days after Clinton conceded defeat with a memorable speech hailing “18 million cracks” in the “highest, hardest glass ceiling,” the Obama team called to offer Hurwitz a job.
She was first assigned to write for the candidate’s wife when Obama was preparing to reintroduce herself to the world at the Denver convention, after a period when she had been caricatured as angry, elitist and unpatriotic.
Hurwitz was hesitant and wondered whether Obama would be suspicious of her after the brutal primary campaign. She wasn’t. Their second meeting was a 90-minute conversation in the living room of the Obamas’ Chicago home.
“She clearly said to me: ‘Okay, this is who I am. This is where I come from. This is my family. These are my values, and this is what I want to talk about at the convention,’ ” Hurwitz recalled. “I realized then that Michelle Obama knows who she is, and she always knows what she wants to say.”
After trading a couple drafts back and forth — Hurwitz writing, and then rewriting, based on Obama’s edits — they settled on a final version that told the story of Michelle Obama as a child of Chicago’s working-class South Side, a woman who had long been skeptical of politics but who believed in her husband’s ability to make a difference. Hailed as a high point of the convention, it sent Obama’s popularity soaring.
Speechwriters were not historically part of the first lady’s staff — not even for Eleanor Roosevelt, who gave at least 1,300 speeches during her time in the job, according to Myra Gutin, a historian and author of“The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century” — until Lady Bird Johnson tapped press secretary Liz Carpenter to help her craft public addresses.
First ladies these days are expected to deliver an increasing number of speeches, each with a distinct, newsworthy point — yet not about policy and rarely about politics.
Which is just fine as far as Michelle Obama is concerned.
She and Hurwitz seem to have chosen an understated oratorical style, Gutin said. “It’s a gentle way of making a suggestion. It’s not the kind of thing that hits you over the head.”
In a commencement address before Tuskegee University, in Alabama, last year, the first lady took on the topic of race — first by describing the pressure that students at the historically black college face trying to live up to the achievements of earlier generations of African American trailblazers, and then acknowledging that she could relate to that stress.
“Back when my husband first started campaigning for president, folks had all sorts of questions of me: What kind of first lady would I be? What kinds of issues would I take on? . . . But, as potentially the first African American first lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations, conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?”
Tyler Lechtenberg, a speechwriter for the president who wrote for the first lady before moving to the West Wing, worked on that speech. “She really wants to connect and to be sure there’s an emotional center in every speech,” he said. “She’s not interested in rattling off a bunch of statistics.”
Nor is she particularly interested in creating a sound bite. Hurwitz has become the gentle enforcer of the first lady’s speaking style, and she takes pains to nix any lines that sound like something a politician would say. Obama is more interested in telling a story, and Hurwitz has come to know her personal story intimately. More often than not, Obama weaves tales of her working-class childhood in Chicago into her speeches.
The key for Hurwitz is retelling that story and making it fresh. In addition to her intuitive sense of “the big narrative arc” of Obama’s story, “she’ll know some of the smaller stories — like, what did the first lady and her brother, Craig, do at some moment,” said Tina Tchen, the first lady’s chief of staff. “That helps.”
The first lady “really shines, and she’s at her best when she’s talking to groups she identifies with,” said Cody Keenan, the president’s director of speechwriting. “She and the president are pretty normal people who somehow ended up in the White House. So whenever she gets to go to a place where people have never seen a president or first lady, it is meaningful. It’s powerful. She and Sarah feel that. And it shows in their collaborations.”
A Wayland, Mass., native who got her start as a speechwriting intern for Vice President Al Gore, Hurwitz has kept a relatively low profile during her White House years, even as some of her colleagues — notably Jon Favreau, who hired her — have become personalities in their own right or taken their credentials to Hollywood in search of screenwriting careers.
In the East Wing, she oversees just one other writer, David Cavell, who works in an adjacent office; they often yell through the wall to exchange thoughts on a project.
The hours are long; there always seems to be some important event looming. Hurwitz has made efforts to focus on her personal life by taking classes on Judaism and exercising regularly — although her time on the elliptical is sometimes interrupted by a burst of inspiration, and she will jump off the machine and tap out an email to herself with an idea of how to turn something the first lady brought up in a meeting into prose.
Yet the first lady’s lawyerly sense of organization has made the job easier. Michelle Obama has been known to practice big speeches word for word, weeks in advance, and rarely orders up last-minute changes.
Hurwitz was with her boss in New Mexico recently, where she got to see how one of Obama’s final commencement speeches resonated with its audience, at the Santa Fe Indian School. It drew a sharp connection between her enslaved ancestors and the painful early history of the 126-year-old school.
“This school was founded as part of a deliberate, systematic effort to extinguish your culture; to literally annihilate who you were and what you believed in. But look at you today,” the first lady said to applause. “The native languages that were once strictly forbidden here now echo through hallways and in your dorm-room conversations at night.”
Hurwitz said she got lost in the moment even though she had helped to craft the words.
“I thought to myself, ‘I am watching the great-great-granddaughter of a slave give a speech to a room of Native American kids, [and] the vast majority of them are going to college, and many to Ivy League schools,’ ” Hurwitz said. “To see that — this is a great country.”