Cody Keenan has shaped the words of Barack Obama for more than a decade—from the president’s speech at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th anniversary of the Selma civil rights march, to State of the Union addresses, to times of national mourning. Keenan, a diehard Cubs fan, even penned the speech to welcome the team to the White House after they won the World Series.
As a fellow at AU’s Sine Institute of Policy & Politics, this spring presidential primary season Keenan explores “Discipline or Disruption?: Communication in the New Media Age” in a series of wide-ranging 90-minute seminars—participants may attend one or all to examine how public servants break through the noise to make a thoughtful policy argument.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about how quickly the political media has changed,” says Keenan. “We’re a far cry from The Boys on the Bus and three nightly newscasts. We barely had to deal with Twitter in 2008. Now, political communication has been completely upended. Everyone’s in search of a quick and easy viral moment—whereas, as a speechwriter, we try to make a thoughtful logical argument. How does a political campaign navigate? How do you go up against a campaign that lives in misinformation where there are no guardrails? Does speechwriting still matter? I’d argue that it does. Saying who you are, what you believe in—that stuff still matters.”
Several AU alumni worked in the Obama White House—some of these Eagles returned to campus to take part in Keenan’s first Sine seminars. Terry Szuplat, SPA/BA ’95, one of President Obama’s longest-serving speechwriters, who addressed issues like global security, US foreign and defense policy, and human rights, joined Keenan for a speechwriting master class. For Keenan’s seminar on the modern political media environment, he was joined by alumnae Alexandra Platkin, SPA/BA ’07, founding partner Silver Street Strategies and former special assistant to the president and director of research, and Kristen Bartoloni, SPA/BA ’08, who co-founded Silver Street Strategies with Platkin and served in the White House as deputy director of research and rapid response advisor.
Bartoloni was introduced with another connection—she and Keenan are married. The two met on Bartoloni’s first day in the White House; they were married five years later. With Keenan as a speechwriter and Bartoloni as a researcher, their work would frequently overlap. “It’s her job to tell me I’m wrong,” Keenan told Sine seminar attendees.
Bartoloni joined the White House staff just three years after graduating from AU. Both Keenan and Bartoloni describe “pinch me” moments when it was hard to believe their day-to-day experiences in the White House. For Bartoloni, each day when going through the White House gates and showing her ID, she realized the privilege of working there. The view as she left work in the Old Executive Office Building was of the West Wing. She called her mom from Air Force One (staff are encouraged to do so). “It was never really lost on me that I was there,” said Bartoloni. “We got to take our families to the White House on our wedding day, which was pretty great,” Keenan shares. Keenan remembers celebrating on the Truman balcony the night health care passed or exploring Havana, Cuba, when the president traveled there. “What was great about President Obama was that he leaned into those moments, agreeing ‘this is cool, right?,’” said Bartoloni.
Keenan’s Sine seminars have attracted undergrad and graduate students, staff, faculty, and community members. “I was thrilled with the caliber of questions, and everyone was willing to dive in,” Keenan says. “That’s what a seminar should be.” The next session, “The Power to Persuade,” will be streamed online on March 23.
American University has transitioned to online classes for the remainder of the spring semester. The Sine Institute will be hosting webinars conducted by the Sine Fellows. Details and updates about Sine Institute events are at american.edu/sine-institute.