Jon Favreau Shares Advice with Students

The former Obama speechwriter discusses his career, working with the president and tips for aspiring politicians.

Jon Favreau
GW College Democrats President Omeed Firouzi presents former White House speechwriter Jon Favreau with a T-shirt.
September 30, 2013

By Julyssa Lopez

The moment Barack Obama was declared president in 2008, his campaign administration broke out into cheers. But speechwriter Jon Favreau didn’t join in—he was crouched under a desk talking on the phone with Ann Nixon Cooper, a 106-year-old African American woman who had waited three hours to vote for President Obama.

“I’m so proud of him. I’m so proud of us,” she told Mr. Favreau.

Her words moved him to tears, he revealed to a group of George Washington University students on Wednesday, and reminded him that people can drive change if they work hard and disregard negativity from others.

“In my experience, if you’re willing to persevere, tune out cynicism and believe in what you’re doing, you can make a difference not only in the people you’re helping, but in your own life,” he said.

The GW College Democrats invited Mr. Favreau to speak at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre in an event co-sponsored by the GW Student Association, the Student Dining Board, the Graduate School of Political Management and the School of Media and Public Affairs.

Mr. Favreau outlined his successful career, which most recently included serving as President Obama’s director of speechwriting. The road wasn’t an easy one, though. Mr. Favreau recalled his very first job at age 22 during Secretary of State John Kerry’s presidential election campaign.

“The job was not glamorous. I was the personal assistant to about six different people in the press office. I was paid $20,000 a year. I shared a tiny basement studio apartment in Capitol Hill with some rats,” he said.

His dedication eventually prevailed, and he was promoted to deputy speechwriter. Shortly after, former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs recommended Mr. Favreau to the speechwriting staff for then-Sen. Obama's presidential campaign. Mr. Gibbs had worked closely with Mr. Favreau during Secretary Kerry’s campaign, and he endorsed his speechwriting skills. In 2009, Mr. Favreau was named director of speechwriting in the White House.

Mr. Favreau called President Obama one of the best writers he’s ever encountered and remembered his time at the White House as some of the most difficult but satisfying learning experiences he’s had.

Following his speech, Mr. Favreau took several questions from the audience. One student inquired about his worst memories at the White House. Mr. Favreau remembered he had actually once asked the president the same question. The president replied his worst memories included greeting the coffins of fallen soldiers at Dover Air Force Base, and when the country almost hit the debt ceiling.

“His worst moments had nothing to do with politics. They were the moments that really had to do with how the country was going to be governed and whether we were going to be OK,” he said.

Another student jokingly asked how accurate the West Wing was.

“No one is that smart or witty in the White House,” Mr. Favreau quipped.

Most importantly, Mr. Favreau impressed how crucial it is for aspiring politicians to get firsthand experience by jumping on a campaign.

“There’s no better place to cut your teeth than a campaign. It’s exciting, it changes every day and you meet people who will be your friends for life. You don’t sleep and you’ll be unhealthy and that sort of thing, but it’s worth the experience,” he said.