The Story Behind Obama’s Keynote attend to at the 2004 democratic National Convention

July 27, 2016

By mar Frances Berry and Josh Gottheimer


President Barack Obama take away the phase tonight to speak in ~ the democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Twelve year ago, the made his famous keynote deal with at the 2004 DNC that catapulted him into the nationwide spotlight. We look ago on this speech v a passage from Power in Words: The stories Behind Barack Obama’s Speeches, native the State house to the White House in which authors mar Frances Berry and also Josh Gottheimer provide us a behind-the-scenes look at the craft and also preparation that got in it.

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It’s fair to say the no one can have meant what result from Barack Obama’s prime-time decided at the July 2004 autonomous National Convention. Not the Senate candidate himself nor his two crucial aides and also traveling companions, David Axelrod and also Robert Gibbs, nor mar Beth Cahill, the campaign manager for man Kerry, the autonomous nominee for president.

No one could have imagined how that seventeen-minute speech would catapult Obama right into stardom and onto the nationwide political stage and also eventually right into the White residence itself. ~ all, no one had also heard the Barack Obama prior to he take it the podium. Top top the morning that the speech, the Philadelphia Inquirer headlined, “Who the hell Is This Guy?”

True, Obama had caught the fist of human being in his home state and also had end up being the leading candidate for the Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate vacated through Peter Fitzgerald, a Republican. Yet he had got hold of the lead only after his well-funded Republican opponent Jack Ryan dropped the end of the gyeongju in the wake of a sex scandal. Having served only in the Illinois State Senate for eight years, Obama was no a national figure by any type of stretch. In fact, the has since reminded world that in 2000, after his failure bid for Congress, he had trouble also getting a happen onto the floor of the autonomous National Convention in Los Angeles and ended up watching the proceedings on a TV screen near the convention hall. He was so damaged that the rental auto facility garbage his American to express card.

Obama created in his 2006 book, The Audacity that Hope, “The process by which i was selected together keynote speaker continues to be something the a an enig to me.” In truth, there wasn’t much secret about it. The Kerry project had assumed long and hard around whom to choose for the slot. A team of around a dozen convention organizers, including Cahill, the Massachusetts politico Jack Corrigan, and the campaign strategist Robert Shrum, thought about their options. The group narrowed their list of appealing democratic Party politicos come Governors Jennifer Granholm that Michigan, Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Tom Vilsack that Iowa, and Obama.

In the end, the project concluded the Obama to be the politically way choice; that would assist them attract African American voters, a demography that had been lagging in the polls. He was eloquent and also youthful and also delivered the right confident message (his campaign speeches because that the U.S. Senate had the now familiar “Yes, we can”). Illinois was also a an important Senate seat. It was true the the project was concerned around Obama’s place on the battle in Iraq—Kerry had initially voted come authorize military action. But ultimately, together Cahill placed it, “I was encouraged he was going to be the best.”

Plus, ~ above a an individual level, Kerry and Obama had hit that off during a joint campaign swing in feather 2004, very first at a vocational facility on Chicago’s West Side and also then in ~ a downtown fund-raiser in ~ the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Follow to David Mendell, there to be a clear rapport between the two: “It’s Kerry kind of looking in ~ him and picking increase tricks indigenous the rookie.”

Obama and also his aides had pursued the speaking slot v intensity and purpose. The team created an eight-minute video clip that consisted of excerpts indigenous Obama’s Illinois Senate primary victory speech and also campaign photos collection to music from the documentary movie When We Were Kings, featuring Muhammad Ali. And Gibbs, a former Kerry project staffer, worked the phones come his previous colleagues. They knew the promising history of previous keynote speakers, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ceded rousing nomination speeches for Alfred E. Smith in 1924 and 1928, and also Bill Clinton, who introduced Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988. Even though hubert Humphrey, Barbara Jordan, and also Mario Cuomo didn’t ascend come the presidency, their convention speeches have come to be important historical footnotes: Humphrey delivered a fiery defense of civil civil liberties in 1948; Barbara Jordan to be the very first black mrs to deliver a keynote decided in 1976; Cuomo’s 1984 “Tale of 2 Cities” speech, around rich and poor in America, received vital acclaim.

Barack Obama began working ~ above his speech in at an early stage July, as soon as Cahill ceded the good news that he had been chosen. Without absent a beat, Obama turned come his aides and also delivered a clean message: he would write this speech. According to Gibbs, “He wanted to compose this a method that to be personal.” Axelrod later commented, “Almost immediately he claimed to me, ‘I recognize what I want to do. I desire to talk about my story as component of the American story.’”

Obama toiled away on the breeze assiduously, at all hours of the day and also night, up until a week before the convention, when the convention speechwriting team demanded to see a copy. He created one version after another, scribbling lines on scraps of paper, ~ above the corners of envelopes, top top yellow legit pads, and on the top of memos indigenous his aides. Obama experiment lines from the speech on everyone, from crowds at his campaign events come his state senate colleagues. In ~ one point, after coming up through a brand-new idea, that went and also sat top top a stool in the bathroom off the Illinois general Assembly floor to create it down. Follow to one former project aide, David Katz, “We’d end up at nine or ten p.m. And he’d create till one or 2 in the morning.”

The Kerry staff gave Obama eight minute of speaking time. Obama’s first draft to be twenty-five minutes, therefore he sent drafts ago and forth to his aides; they’d reduced out lines and he’d invariably add them earlier into the text.

The Kerry project was a little anxious about what Obama’s speech would say; he to be still an unknown quantity. Vicky Rideout, the convention’s cook speechwriter, had actually been expecting a breeze in mid-July and it was getting late.

But the moment Rideout received and also read the draft, she knew they had a hit. At seventeen minute the speech was much longer than they had actually asked for, yet it didn’t matter. Rideout asked to take the end one line, but otherwise embraced the speech as it to be submitted.

Obama come in Boston the evening before his first rehearsal at the FleetCenter. Gibbs had scheduled a flurry of interviews, including a one-on-one with Tim Russert for Meet the Press—so many, in fact, that Obama started to lose his voice.

Obama had actually never provided a TelePrompter when he visited his very first rehearsal. Follow to Mendell, “Obama was sort of winging it—that is just how he to be doing things back then.” but this to be different. Michael Sheehan, a veteran speech coach, offered Obama his typical tips, including exactly how to take care of the three competing audiences the night that the speech—the screaming party delegates in the hall, the large JumboTron display screen that would beam his image and words the end to the far reaches that the hall, and the millions sitting in prior of their tv sets.

Obama had actually three hour-long rehearsals at the practice podium in former of blue velvet curtains in what was generally the Celtics locker room. His early run-throughs weren’t particularly strong; he seemed to it is in adjusting to his new setting. However he soon uncovered his groove. Jon Favreau, then functioning as Kerry’s speechwriter, that later came to be Obama’s cook speechwriter, remembered city hall his future boss and being awestruck by his passion and charisma. The knew instantly that Obama was various from everyone else he had watched rehearse the week.

Unfortunately, Favreau additionally had to provide some hard news come the future senator. One of the lines from Obama’s text was virtually the same to one in Kerry’s accept speech. Obama’s draft read: “We’re not red states and blue states; we’re all Americans, standing up with each other for the red, white, and blue.” Kerry’s speech consisted of the line, “Maybe some just see us divided into those red states and blue states, yet I see us as one America: red, white, and also blue.”

After Favreau called Obama that he would need to drop the line, Obama responded peevishly, “Are you informing me I need to take this heat out?” Favreau mental stuttering, unsure exactly how to respond. Axelrod could see the Obama to be frustrated, for this reason he grabbed Favreau, conveniently introduced himself, and also asked him to step out right into the hallway where they could talk about the line.

The two invested the next couple of minutes rewriting the sentence, an altering it to: “We are one people, every one of us pledging allegiance come the stars and also stripes, all of us defending the United claims of America.” Axelrod and Favreau had actually nipped the difficulty in the bud prior to it erupted right into a bigger issue. In ~ the time, neither knew the it would be the very first of many such collaborations between them.

Obama awoke in ~ 6:00 a.m. The job of the speech. ~ a huge breakfast, a rally funded by the organization of conservation Voters, and a fast lunch gobbled down between interviews, Obama retirement to his room because that a breather. The rest didn’t last long. There was a last-minute crisis. His wife, Michelle, didn’t choose his tie, therefore Axelrod got hold of Gibbs’s tie literally turn off his neck.

When Obama lastly made it into the vehicle that would ferry him come the FleetCenter, he tranquil the method he knew best. He dubbed his grandmother, Madelyn, in Hawaii, and his 2 daughters, Sasha and also Malia.

With a sea of democracy cheering the on, and millions more watching on television, Barack Obama walked ~ above the nationwide stage—literally and figuratively—beaming indigenous ear to ear. Native his vantage point in front of the crowd, all he could see was a sea of placards v “Obama” painted top top them. Because that seventeen minute Obama mesmerized his audience, first with his biography and then with a ringing endorsement of man Kerry—2,297 native in all. The told America the meaning of his afri name, Barack: “blessed”; he spoke about the prestige of bipartisanship and the require to administer opportunity to every Americans.

His delivery started slowly and also was a little stiff. His long-time Chicago girlfriend Valerie Jarrett was so nervous the she “was digging nails into hands.” however then, Rideout recalls, a metaphorical light bulb went on. “His shoulders resolved down and this wave of assistance from the crowd looked choose it accurate washed over him...Something taken place to the physically.” His polish, poise, and preacher-like cadences drew in the crowd. It to be clear the he was comfortable in his very own skin, unequal so numerous other politicians. One of his Harvard legislation professors, Christopher Edley, later on said, “He was virtually freakishly self-possessed and also centered...He doesn’t strive because that an Everyman quality: that is relaxed but never chummy, gracious rather than familiar. His surface ar is therefore smooth, his activities so easy and fluid, his voice so consistent and also well pitched that he have the right to seem choose an actor playing a politician, also implausibly effortless to be doing it because that real.” autonomous strategist Stephanie Cutter recalled the evening and his energy, saying, “I remember was standing behind him and watching his feet move. The was like he was dancing in ~ the podium. His feet were moving to the rate of the speech.”

Obama was interrupted with applause thirty-three times. The reviews to be unanimous: it to be a barnburner. People instantly compared his oratorical skills to those of man Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and also Martin Luther King Jr. He was mobbed by crowds, not just that evening, but also every work thereafter. The throngs in ~ his senate project events frequently shot increase from hundreds come thousands. His political future would be forever changed. Together Senator dick Durbin of Illinois put it, “Without that Boston speech, over there is a concern whether Barack would certainly be...

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today. His publicly image changed because of the speech.”


About the Authors 

Mary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American society Thought and professor of background at the college of Pennsylvania, and the writer of ripe books. The recipient of thirty-three honorary degrees, she has actually been chair the the U.S. Board of directors on polite Rights, is a constant contributor toPolitico, and also has showed up onReal Time with Bill Maher, Anderson Cooper 360, The day-to-day Show, Tavis Smiley, and PBS's NewsHour. Follow her on Twitter at