Former presidential speechwriter emphasizes the value of comedy in present political climate

Former speechwriter for President Barack Obama, David Litt, speaks in front an audience at the first Civic Life Lunch in the Rabb Room on Sept. 18. Rachel Hartman / The Tufts Daily

Comedian and former presidential speechwriter David Litt kicked off the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life’s Civic Life Lunch series yesterday, hosting a one-hour-long talk in the Lincoln Filene Center’s Rabb Room. Approximately 100 people were in attendance.

Litt, who served as lead joke writer for four White House Correspondents’ Association dinners, is currently head writer/producer for Funny or Die’s D.C. office. He has also written a book about his experiences working with the former President Barack Obama, titled “Thanks, Obama: My Hopey Changey White House Years.” His lunchtime talk was co-sponsored by the Department of Political Science and JumboVote, according to the Tisch College website.

In his discussion, Litt explored comedy and speechwriting’s role in politics and civic engagement.

Program Administrator for Tisch College Jessica Byrnes introduced Litt and moderated the conversation with questions.

Litt first clarified the value of being a speechwriter at the White House. He said that many people used to ask him if writing speeches was actually a form of cheating, or of allowing “important people” such as the President of the United States to avoid speaking for themselves.

“The way I thought about my job in the White House was certainly not to tell Barack Obama what to say,” Litt said. “It was to save him time, so he could be the president and stuff.”

By introducing new ideas, thoughts and stories to the president’s work, Litt said he saw the speechwriter as a useful tool.

“To me, that’s why speechwriters are not cheating, but actually provide something of value,” Litt said.

Byrnes then asked Litt how one might find oneself in the “path of lightning,” a phrase often used by Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to then-President Obama, according to Litt’s book.

Litt said that Jarrett’s “path of lightning” refers to the area of action, and then shared an idea as to how to get there.

“Rather than think, ‘How do I create opportunities?,’ [think] ‘how do you put yourself in a place where opportunities come to you?” Litt said.

Litt ended the talk with a Q&A session that touched upon his experiences at the White House, his proudest moments as a speechwriter and comedy writer, the speechwriting process and his thoughts on the Trump presidency.

Litt told the Daily in an interview of the challenges of working as a speechwriter for Obama, particularly that of inevitable scrutiny and the high pressure of every speech.

“Every word that he said was scrutinized, was sometimes accidentally taken out of context and sometimes deliberately taken out of context,” Litt said. “I think that realizing your words have that much weight, but still trying to have to write carefully and also well is very hard.”

Litt stressed comedy’s value in today’s intense political polarization, stating that satire helps ground a president.

“In the past, presidents of both parties have made fun of themselves, there’s this sense that ‘well I only hold this job for a little while, [and] this office is more important than I am,’” he said. “I don’t think that our current president feels that way, and so satire is a reminder that we still, as a country, share those values even if they don’t exist in the White House at the moment.”

Litt then said that comedy reveals truth, and that it brings people together.

“So much about comedy is identifying the truth. And that shouldn’t be a radical act, and it shouldn’t be subversive to point things out that are true, but in our current political moment, it is. And so telling the truth has become an act of sort of defiance in a way that it shouldn’t be and hopefully won’t be in the future,” he said. “Really good comedy makes you feel less alone, and I think that’s something that’s pretty valuable.”

Litt said that the most formative lesson from his White House career was finding common humanity among people, and realizing even the president is a human being.

“[I] imagined that [Obama] was infallible … I think that I learned that he was a great president and … an extraordinarily impressive person, but he’s also a person,” Litt said. “I think in a way that made me more hopeful, rather than less hopeful, because you can be someone that makes mistakes and someone that doesn’t always get it right and still do really important things for your country or the world.”