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David Litt, an Obama Speechwriter Who Wants No Credit

Eventually, Mr. Litt found himself writing low-profile remarks for Mr. Obama and by the second term, became one of his top speechwriters, especially marshaling his comedic side as the lead writer for multiple White House Correspondents’ Association dinners.

He discussed his book over coffee and explained how in “The West Wing” parlance, he was not the one in the walk and talks, but the one handing the papers to those walking and talking.

Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What are the differences between your life in the West Wing and the show, “The West Wing”?


David Litt, center, with Keegan-Michael Key and former President Barack Obama.

Lawrence Jackson

Being introduced to politics by “The West Wing” is like being introduced to sex by “Debbie Does Dallas.” The real thing is more satisfying, but also it doesn’t live up to the fantasy in certain ways. The thing about “The West Wing” was that everybody was extraordinarily clever all the time, and everything leads to a satisfying conclusion at the end of every week. And there’s only like five people in the entire building. I wouldn’t have been in the walk and talk.

I was one of the people giving a piece of paper to someone in the walk and talk and then scurrying out of the frame. And I got to the White House and realized that the White House, in addition to being the most important office building in the world, is also an office building. A lot of your day is spent trying to figure out how to get people to stop replying all to every email or how to make sure everyone is on the conference call at the same time. Somehow, this was never in an episode.

Functionally, why were you not Toby Ziegler or Sam Seaborn (two fictional speechwriters on “The West Wing” and top advisers to the president)?


Richard Schiff as Toby Ziegler on “The West Wing.” Mr. Litt explained his White House role using the show’s parlance. “I wouldn’t have been in the walk and talk,” he said.

Danny Feld/NBC Universal

What was exciting about writing a book was that I was not in the inner circle, so that was kind of liberating. I didn’t have to write about all those moments I made history because I didn’t make a ton of history, and that’s totally fine. And most people who work at the White House don’t, and they still do good work and it matters.

Not every speech is going in the history books. Some of the speeches are a video recording saying “Happy Birthday!” to one of the president’s friends in Chicago, or a sports team is coming to the White House and you’re making some jokes about it, and that was a big part of the day to day of the president’s calendar.

You write in your book that “speechwriters are more like personal trainers than puppet masters.” What do you mean?


From left, Jimmy Smits, Matthew Del Negro, Rob Lowe (as the speechwriter Sam Seaborn) and Bradley Whitford, in “The West Wing.” Mr. Litt says that as a speechwriter for the Obama administration, “I didn’t make a ton of history, and that’s totally fine.”

Mitchell Haddad/NBC

They can help you present the best, most attractive version of yourself to the world. They can’t turn you into someone you’re not. And that, by the way, gives you more confidence in the role of speechwriters.

Did you ever write a speech in which you disagreed with the content?

That’s a question I get a lot, and I kind of got lucky. There might be stuff where if I really look into it, a policy detail, but, A., I don’t really know because I’m not a policy person and B., on the big picture issues, there was never a moment where I sat down and thought, “I totally disagree with this.” When I wrote in the private sector, this would happen sometimes.

You write about how little influence you had in the White House. What was your most concrete accomplishment?

The way that I always phrase it is that “American history would have been totally the same without me, except for a couple of jokes.” And I am very proud of those jokes. There were lots of people involved in this. Jon Lovett ran the joke-writing process while he was at the White House. A lot of comedy people from Los Angeles.

I think I was part of using comedy and humor in a way that it hadn’t been used before to get the president’s message across. So when we had Keegan-Michael Key come in as Luther the Anger Translator [at the 2015 White House Correspondents Dinner] to do something that was ultimately a chance for the president to really get angry about climate-change deniers in a way he never could have done in a serious speech and in a way that didn’t get bogged down in the political process because it was comedy.

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