'Writing the Words That Made History': NBC's Puff Piece on Obama's Departing Speechwriter

One week after Politico declared President Obama to be a "puppet master" for his ability to manipulate media coverage, on Thursday's NBC Today, co-host Willie Geist was a willing participant in the string pulling as he conducted a fawning interview with outgoing White House speechwriter Jon Favreau: "[Obama] calls Favreau his mind reader....the departing speechwriter takes us inside his life as the voice of the President."

With a headline on screen declaring "Words That Made History," Geist touted how Favreau "spent the last eight years taking hand scribbled notes...and turning them into soaring speeches for Barack Obama." Geist gushed: "The two have been inseparable writing partners since Favreau joined then-Senator Obama in 2005."

Geist was amazed by Favreau's early success: "...at 27 years old, the Massachusetts native became the second youngest head speechwriter in the history of the White House. There's a lot of focus on your age. People are obsessed that you're this wunderkind." And treated the Obama aide as a celebrity: "With his age, his looks, and his proximity to power, Favreau became a star quickly. One of Time magazine's 100 most influential people. One of People's most beautiful."

At the top of the 9 a.m. ET hour, Geist promoted another portion of the friendly chat, about Favreau writing jokes for the President's appearance at the 2011 White House Correspondent's Dinner, the same night as the Bin Laden raid:

GEIST: Favreau talked to me about writing the jokes for that event and not knowing himself.

FAVREAU: We're happy with all of our jokes, right? We go in to see the President. And he's like, "You know, I like all your jokes. I think everything's fine. There's one joke where the punchline is Osama Bin Laden, and I would just maybe change that to another dictator." So maybe-

GEIST: Did you read anything into that?

FAVREAU: No. I had no idea why he was doing this. So I'm like, "Would Hosni Mubarak work?" He's like, "Mubarak would work great. Why don't we do that." And so we change it and then that was it. And then that – I found out the next day, just like everyone else did.

GEIST: Calmly says, "Give me another dictator. I can't tell you why, but give me another dictator."

Geist didn't find time to point out this lowlight of Favreau's career that occurred during the 2008 presidential campaign.


Here is a transcript of the February 28 interview:

7:43AM ET

MATT LAUER: We're back now at 7:43. What were you doing in your 20s? Maybe you shouldn't answer that. But Jon Favreau spent his at the right hand of the President, writing words that made history. But tomorrow, President Obama's longtime speechwriter will end his tenure at the ripe old age of 31. Willie sat down with him recently for an exclusive interview. Willie, good morning to you.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Words That Made History; One-On-One With President Obama's Speechwriter]  

WILLIE GEIST: Matt, good morning. Jon Favreau started writing presidential campaign speeches for John Kerry at the age of 22, a few months removed from his college graduation. He later teamed up with a freshman senator named Barack Obama, the man who now calls Favreau his mind reader. In his first television interview, the departing speechwriter takes us inside his life as the voice of the President.

BARACK OBAMA: With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history.

GEIST: So this is the second inaugural right here?

JON FAVREAU: This is the second inaugural, one of the many, many drafts that the President marked up.


GIEST: So these are the President's notes here?

FAVREAU: His very neat writing.

GEIST: Jon Favreau has spent the last eight years taking hand scribbled notes like these and turning them into soaring speeches for Barack Obama.

OBAMA: Generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people, "Yes, we can. Yes, we can."

GEIST: The two have been inseparable writing partners since Favreau joined then-Senator Obama in 2005. Four years later, at 27 years old, the Massachusetts native became the second youngest head speechwriter in the history of the White House. There's a lot of focus on your age. People are obsessed that you're this wunderkind. Did you ever stop and say, "I might be in a little over my head here?"

FAVREAU: Well, all the time I think that I'm in over my head.

GEIST: Still?

FAVREAU: Yeah, of course. Especially when you're writing for the president.

GEIST: Favreau hit the ground running, writing an inaugural address.

OBAMA: The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit.

GEIST: Making the case for health care reform.

OBAMA: I'm not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.

GEIST: And scrambling to finish a Nobel Prize acceptance speech aboard Air Force One.
For a variety of reasons it was a difficult speech...

FAVREAU: Yes.

GEIST: ...not the least of which, the President openly said, "I'm not sure I deserve this."

FAVREAU: He didn't have much time to write the speech. And so, he spent the night before we went to Oslo, up 'til three in the morning writing seven pages of material. We fly to Oslo, and during the flight, everyone falls asleep and we are trying furiously to finish this speech. And it was actually one of the only moments that we didn't know if we would have a speech ready by the time he gave it. He handed us edits literally as he was in the elevator over to the stage and we put the final words on the prompter right as he was walking up to the podium.

OBAMA: At this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on earth.

GEIST: So how close were you to not getting the end of that speech in the prompter?

FAVREAU: Uncomfortably close.

GEIST: With his age, his looks, and his proximity to power, Favreau became a star quickly. One of Time magazine's 100 most influential people. One of People's most beautiful. And tabloids started asking about his relationships after he was spotted with actress Rashida Jones. What do you think about the celebrity aspect of this job?

FAVREAU: You know, I've always been told, always take your job seriously, never take yourself seriously. And you know, this is more fodder for my friends to mock me relentlessly for, than anything that I actually take seriously.

GEIST: Favreau's job is most difficult, he says, during times of a national crisis.

LESTER HOLT: Word of a school shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut.

FAVREAU: He said to me, you know, "You're not a parent yet, but when you're a parent, having a child is like walking around all day with your heart outside your body."

OBAMA: Suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice.

FAVREAU: That was a line that we ended up using in Newtown. In the eight years I've known him, I'd never seen him like that. It affected him very deeply.

GEIST: Even as Favreau walks away from the White House, he suspects he hasn't heard the last from his friend in the Oval Office.

FAVREAU: I've told him I'll be there if he ever, if he ever needs me. And he's told me that once in a while he might call, and I will pick up the phone.

GEIST: You won't send him to voicemail?

FAVREAU: I will not send him to voicemail, no. That's a call I'll take.

GEIST: Favreau plans next to open a consulting business in Washington with Tommy Vietor a friend and colleague who's also leaving tomorrow. Ultimately he has his eye on screen writing for television. As for the President's next speechwriter, the White House has decided to go with somebody a little older this time. Cody Keenan is 32.

LAUER: So there's something about youth at the White House that works. And has Favreau seen television lately? Does he know what he's getting himself into?

GEIST: He is going to try it. He's got a friend, Jon Lovett, a former speechwriter himself, who made the leap to L.A., and says, "It's okay out here, come give it a try."

LAUER: Alright, we wish him well, he's a talented young man. Willie, thank you very much.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC