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A Next Term

Cody Keenan’s journey with Barack Obama



Harkening back to his days on Ridgefield High School student council, Cody Keenan knows a thing or two about politics. A Chicago native who spent his teenage years in Ridgefield, Keenan served as President Barack Obama’s director of speechwriting from 2013 until the end of 44’s second term. 

Last year, Keenan married fellow White House staffer Kristen Bartoloni. The couple has remained in Washington, D.C., with Keenan, a ’98 RHS grad, currently working as Obama’s senior advisor and chief speechwriter. “I didn’t know I wanted to go into public service until I was most of the way through college,” says the ’98 RHS, who went on to receive a degree in political science from Northwestern University and a Master’s in public policy from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “A rigorous education at RHS including phenomenal writing and literature teachers like Kathy Wassall and Bob Cox helped make my career possible.” 

Keenan’s political career began in June 2007 in Chicago when he joined Obama’s campaign as a speechwriting intern. He held various roles over the years—ultimately taking over the main speechwriting duties from Jon Favreau in early 2013. “Life was the White House,” Keenan says, looking back. “Fourteen-hour days, rarely any weekends, and more than a month a year spent on the road. But it was also time spent doing a lot of good for a lot of people with coworkers who became family. Literally. I met my wife at the office in 2011, and we were married last year.” 

Keenan’s thoughtful and memorable speechwriting has been compared to the works of Abraham Lincoln and he was even christened “Hemingway” by President Obama himself. From State of the Union addresses to sermons on the National Mall, Keenan’s carefully crafted and thought-provoking words have affected millions from Newtown to Nigeria. 

He’s been the subject of numerous documentaries including The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth, a Showtime series examining the 2016 presidential election and transition of administrations, as well as The Obama Years: The Power of Words, a new Smithsonian documentary. 

In a New York Times article from 2015, David Axelrod, a longtime adviser to Obama and former newspaper reporter, said of Keenan: “He reminds me of some of the folks I grew up with in the old days in Chicago journalism—those hard-bitten, big-hearted, passionate writers who brought the stories of people to life.” 

Keenan, whose parents moved away from Ridgefield in 2003, says he doesn’t get back to town often, but still measures all chicken-parmesan subs against the one from Genoa Deli and considers his second favorite career slinging hot dogs at Chez Lenard in the late ’90s. For now, Keenan will remain in D.C. helping Obama write his next book, ghostwriting for “interesting” public figures, and occasional public speaking of his own.

“President Obama and I have always been good collaborators, so he asked me to join him in what we jokingly call ‘the afterlife,’” Keenan says of his boss. “We share an office with a few other staffers. But he’s very much the writer-in-chief when it comes to his next book. I’m just around to help.”  

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January 2018

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