How Obama’s Most Famous Speech Almost Didn’t Happen

The day after nine people were slaughtered inside their Charleston, SC church, in June of 2015, would be the fourteenth time President Barack Obama addressed the nation after a mass shooting. The fourteenth time I’d have to find a new way for him to offer some reassurance that the world would keep spinning, even when it was full of holes.

To deliver a statement in the immediate aftermath was a job requirement. To deliver a eulogy or not–that was the question.

I thought back to twenty-six months earlier when Senate Republicans blocked a vote on universal background checks following the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut—with many of the children’s parents looking on—and Obama, as frustrated and cynical as I’d ever seen him, told me, “the next time this happens, I don’t want to speak.” His words could have cracked the planet in half. “What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to say? ‘Well, we tried; we’re just not going to of anything about this anymore?’”

There had been in the debate as to whether or not the commander in chief would deliver a eulogy after two subsequent mass shootings on military bases. after Charleston, I drew the line But he’d hold that day in 2013.

The circumstances of the massacre at Emanuel AME Church made it a tougher call. Early reports from the scene suggested a racial motivation—a white man murdering nine Black people in a Black church, you didn’t need to be Batman to piece that together. But it had become official when Homeland Security Adviser Lisa Monaco marched into my office the day after the slaughter to relay what cable news didn’t yet know—that the killer had told his victims he had to pull the trigger because they were “taking over our country,” and told police he’d wanted to “start a race war.”

An attack on a place of Black dignity, community, and safety conjured up some of America’s oldest and ugliest demons and echoed the violence visited on Black Americans like Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, four little girls in Birmingham, and untold, unnamed others through centuries of slavery and Jim Crow—violence meant to “keep people in their place,” to instill fear in Americans who posed a “threat” to the established order.

From the television above my desk in the West Wing, I heard a mourner lament, “If we’re not safe in the church, God, you tell us where we are safe.”

By Friday morning, not even two days after that act of terror, whether Obama would travel to Charleston and deliver another eulogy was all anybody wanted to know. Some of the president’s advisors upstairs were pushing for it already.

One of the speechwriters on my team, Sarada Peri, shared my feelings. “I’m with him if he doesn’t want to. It’s not on him alone to fix this every time,” Peri said. “Or you,” she added. “But it’s hard, though. This time is different. This one is way too fucked.”

Even two and a half years into my job as Obama’s chief speechwriter, I agonized over every speech I drafted for him. And this one—this one would be a highwire act that would have to be more than a eulogy, but a balm, a sermon, a way forward. I didn’t know what the right words were yet. Maybe someone smarter did. Maybe someone else should have my job. Neither thought was new to me.

Over the weekend, I received word that Obama didn’t want to go. Everything in my relaxed body. The thought of stressing over another eulogy—especially one as fraught as this could be–had been scaring the shit out of me.

Three days later, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett grabbed my arm as I was walking into Monday morning’s senior advisors meeting in the chief of staff’s office. “I read an interesting piece this weekend on the meaning of the Black church, if POTUS is looking for a different message for the funeral. I’ll send it to you.”

“What?”

“For the eulogy on Friday.”

My mouth hung open. I couldn’t tell if this meant that it had been decided that Obama would be giving the eulogy and nobody had told me, or if Valerie had decided it without telling anybody.

She filled the silence. “He has to go speak in Charleston. People will expect him to.”

“That’s not a good reason,” I countered. “And before my team starts working on a eulogy that may or may not happen, I need to talk with him.”

“Come on in, people,” Obama’s baritone rang from the Oval Office an hour later.

I led the way and plopped onto the couch opposite the Rose Garden, the fireplace to my left, the Resolute Desk to my right. communications director Jen Psaki and Jarret took the couch opposite me, Psaki closest to the fireplace, Jarret closest to the Resolute Desk and Obama. Press Secretary Josh Earnest remained on his feet behind them. I avoided their gases.

The president was standing behind his desk in shirtsleeves, organizing some papers. Were it winter, the sun would be streaming in at a low angle from behind him. But one day after the summer solstice, the sun was bathing from on high the collection of maples, elms, oaks, and magnolia trees that ringed and shaded the lush South Lawn.

“So, look,” he said, “I’ve come around to the idea that I have to go to Reverend Pinckney’s service in Charleston to pay my respects. I want to hug those families. But I don’t really want to talk.”

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