Watch this interview.
Harvard Political Review: Tell us about yourself and take us through your career.
Sarah Hurwitz: My name is Sarah Hurwitz and I am a fellow this semester at the Institute of Politics here at Harvard. Previously I was with the Obama administration for eight years, most recently as Michelle Obama’s Chief Speechwriter, and I was also a Senior Speechwriter for President Obama. Before that, I worked for Hillary Clinton’s primary election campaign in 2008. I was a lawyer. I worked in the 2003 and 2004 campaign cycle for General West Clark and Senator Kerry. Before that, I was a speechwriter for Senator Tom Harkin.
HPR: What was the process of getting into the mindset of Michelle Obama?
SH: Michelle Obama is someone who knows who she is and she always knows what she wants to say. The most important part of the process was sitting down with her, before I even started writing, and just saying ‘What do you want to say?’ She always knew exactly what she wanted to say. She would dictate brilliant ideas; she would dictate the main points she wanted to make, the points to support those points, paragraphs of brilliant, beautiful, moving, and thoughtful language.
It was my job as her speechwriter to take all that and turn it into a coherent draft. I would send it around to my colleagues, get their feedback, and then send it to her. Then she would edit it; there was a lot of back and forth on these speeches. She would engage deeply with her speeches so when she was at the podium, those really were her words.
HPR: So, did she come up with the line: “When they go low, we go high”?
SH: She really did. That was her line, not mine. I just typed it into the speech, my only contribution.
HPR: You and Michelle Obama had different backgrounds growing up. How did that affect speechwriting for her?
SH: I think a lot of the time when people ask how did I get into Michelle Obama’s voice, they’re really asking: ‘How did you get the voice of someone who had such a different background from yours?’ The answer is that although we may come from very different backgrounds, we really share core values. She talks about how education was pretty much a religion for her growing up, and her getting into college was so important to her parents because they didn’t have college degrees. They really wanted her and her brother to go to college. That was a message that my brother and I got from our parents. There was a real focus on getting an education and working hard and this idea that ‘you are entitled to nothing’; ‘you have to work for everything you have in your life.’ Those are very similar values, which helped us a lot.
But I think we also had a shared sensibility about what makes a great speech. There is no daylight [difference] between Mrs. Obama and I about what makes a great speech. I think that when you have a shared sensibility about speech writing with the person you are writing for, it goes a long way. I think those were the two key things to us working together.
HPR: You were the Senior Advisor to the White House Council on Women and Girls. What did your work in this job look like?
SH: I worked mainly on girls’ issues in my past involvement with the White House Council on Women and Girls. My focus was on inspiring and empowering young women to use their voices in politics and civic engagement. We also did a big conference on the representation of girls and boys – gender in general – in the media and in toys and what kinds of messages were being sent to them. Toys for girls are more geared toward playing house, stuffed animals, and dolls; while for boys, they’re much more geared toward building things and creating things. It creates different skill sets in kids with different genders and it just doesn’t make sense. It’s not acceptable. Overcoming barriers like that in toys and media kids see early on was a big component of the conference I worked hard on in my last year there.
HPR: What do you think is the connection between speech writing and activism?
SH: There is a very intense connection if you look through history. Look at the Civil Rights Movement. The speeches and the rhetoric used in letters—Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—were hugely important to the movement. Good speeches, speechwriting, and rhetoric can inspire people. It can empower people.
Look at President Obama’s campaign in 2007. The role of his speeches and articulating a clear and moving vision for our country was what got so many people to get in their cars and drive to Iowa, New Hampshire—all across the country—to be field organizers, work for little to no money and with very little sleep. He really inspired people with the power of his words. Speechwriting and activism are very closely linked.
HPR: What challenges does the rise of “fake news” pose for speechwriters?
SH: This is a very serious issue. People can certainly have different opinions in democracy—and they should, as it’s very important—but they can’t have different facts. If we’re not all operating from the same base of factual truths, then we’re all in a lot of trouble. It is the role of political leaders to be rigorously honest and truthful in their speechwriting. In the Obama administration, we had a very rigorous fact-checking operation, which was also true of previous administrations, both Democrats and Republicans. It seems a little less true of this current administration, but we were intensely loyal to the truth. It was very important to us. I think that one way to combat fake news is for people to be incredibly careful of the truth and what they say, to make sure it is accurate and that it is true.
HPR: As a speechwriter, you helped create the voices of the President and the First Lady. What accomplishment in your career so far are you most proud of?
SH: I would say that I channeled the voice of the President and First Lady; I wouldn’t say that I created it. They had their own voice and we were just there to help. But, what I am most proud of is a number of the speeches I helped Mrs. Obama with. I’m really proud of her Democratic National Convention Speech of 2016 and her speech of 2008 as well. That 2008 speech was the first I ever wrote for her.
I’m really proud of the speech she gave in New Hampshire, talking about the horrifying misogyny we were seeing from Donald Trump in that election, including the videotape in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women. The First Lady just really stood up and articulated what so many men and women were thinking in the country.
In response to that speech, she got so many emails and letters from women saying, ‘I’m no longer going to feel ashamed of what’s happened to me. Thank you for speaking on my behalf.’ She also got a lot of letters from men, as well, who said, ‘Thank you for saying that this is not how decent men behave. I don’t behave this way. I have daughters; I have sons. This isn’t what I want them to see.’ Michelle Obama was able to articulate what so many people were feeling in this really difficult moment. I’m just proud of the way she was able to inspire people; the way she was able to bring people together. To be a part of that was the greatest honor of my life.
HPR: Thank you so much.
SH: Thank you for having me.
Image Source: Harvard Institute of Politics