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Book Review: Grace – President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America by Cody Keenan

Reviewed by Canon Mike D Williams

What you say matters. This is especially true when you are the American President. Cody Keenan was an intern on Obama’s campaign team and rose to become the President’s chief speechwriter. This is a very well written book that weaves together key moments within a ten-day period towards the end of Obama’s second term in June 2015.

The ten days bring together contrasting issues. A white supremacist shooting and an astonishing act of forgiveness. A national reckoning with race and the Confederate flag. The Supreme Court judgements about marriage equality for gay people and whether the Affordable Care Act was legal.

Obama paid close attention to drafting speeches often contributing large sections or finding the essence of the message in a few words. The Supreme Court judgements could go either way, so the Whitehouse had to prepare several responses. Success at Court is the easier message to craft. How would they respond to the Affordable Care Act being deemed illegal and millions of Americans losing their health insurance overnight?

These issues are overtaken by yet another mass shooting. A white gunman entered a black church, took part in a Bible study and then turned his gun on the Pastor and others. The President had previously met the Pastor and pressure built on Obama to attend and speak at the funeral.

Prior to this Obama had told Keenan that he was not planning to speak at any more funerals for mass shooting victims – he had done too many already. Change to the gun laws were always blocked by the Republicans. Keenan takes us with him as Whitehouse staff advocate that Obama should attend the funeral and give the eulogy.

Keenan struggles – how could he find something new to say – the President had said it all before. Yet here was a moment when the nation needed their first black President to again call for a greater vision of what it means to be American. To overcome the race divisions and find a way forward.

Crafting the eulogy speech is central to the story. Keenan struggles to get a draft together in the days before the funeral. Obama makes many revisions including on the helicopter ride from the Whitehouse on route to the church. All this happens minutes after the President responds to the Supreme Court judgement on gay marriage and speaks to the nation from the Rose Garden.

Why is the book called ‘Grace’? Spoiler alert – the content of the eulogy speech gives the answer. The speechwriting process gives a different type of insight into how Obama thought and led the American people in a testing period in history. Worth a read.