David Litt was a recent Yale graduate when he hit the campaign trail for a presidential candidate named Barack Obama. Both Obama and Litt went on to the White House, the latter as one of the president’s speechwriters. Litt humorously chronicles his White House years in a new memoir called “Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years.”
What happened the first time you met President Obama?
The first time I met President Obama, I literally blacked out. This was in 2011 and I had been assigned to write a video wishing America a happy Thanksgiving. Not especially a big deal, but to me it was a big deal. We were about to start filming the video when the videographer stopped and said, “Mr. President, this is David. It’s the first video he’s ever written for you.” President Obama asked, “How’s it going, David?” I remember thinking I didn’t know I had to answer questions. I literally have no idea what I said after that.
You have to tell our readers the “Golden Girls” story!
My first time ever in the Oval Office was for a video for Betty White’s 90th birthday. As part of the video, President Obama was supposed to pretend to be listening to the “Golden Girls” theme song—Betty White’s popular television show. I managed to do everything wrong. I got completely tongue-tied. I tried to get President Obama a second birthday card as a prop, which he didn’t need. And I pulled out a pair of headphones for the final joke, which got so tangled up they looked like a tumbleweed. I didn’t know what to do so I gave the whole tangled mess to the president of the United States.
After watching Barack Obama untangle headphones for 30 seconds, I was sure that my chance to make an impression on the president was totally shot. Right before he was done filming this last scene, President Obama asked if anyone knew the “Golden Girls” theme song. I suddenly knew what I could do for my country. I looked our commander-in-chief in the eye, and I’m fairly certain became the first person to sing the “Golden Girls” theme song in a meeting with a sitting president. The goal of every White House staffer is to make the president just a little bit better at his or her job when you’re in the room. By that standard, my first time in the Oval Office turned out to be a success.
You write that every White House speechwriter inevitably makes a gaffe that has serious repercussions. Can you talk about your gaffe?
I was writing a speech that was mostly jokes and had one serious part at the end, in which President Obama was praising the press. I wrote a sentence that said reporters have risked everything to bring us stories from countries like Syria and Kenya. I used Syria because it had an evil regime and I used Kenya because it sort of rhymes with Syria. I should have run this by someone in foreign policy. When the Kenyan government saw they were in the same sentence as Syria, they were extremely unhappy. The strange thing is when you anger an entire foreign government, having the power to start an international incident doesn’t give you the power to stop one. In the end, a senior White House official had to clarify the incident, saying obviously the situation in Kenya is different than in Syria, which is White House code for the speechwriter is an idiot.
What was it like to fly on Air Force One?
Air Force One is exactly as cool as you think it is. It’s not like flying first class, but the fact that I had legroom was a major upgrade. I write about how good the food is and how much they give you. You have a phone to call anybody from the plane. But the most special thing is it’s this incredible symbol of America and what it means to be an American. You feel like you’re inside that, even if you’re just the tiniest part of it.
Why did you leave the White House?
I didn’t want to pretend that I was indispensable to the place. It was 2016 and I was ready to try new things, as well as make sense of this experience that I went through. That was a project I was really interested in taking on, and the time was right. I left my job at a moment when I loved it.
What are some of your big takeaways from your time in the Obama White House?
“Thanks, Obama” is about my time in the White House, and there are plenty of stories about embarrassing myself in front of the president that I wanted to share. But it’s also about the experience a lot of us share going from being a kid to being an adult. To me it was about learning that it’s possible to be both an idealist and realist at the same time. People in Washington act as if there are only two choices—either you’re idealistic and naïve or realistic and cynical. To me, it was about understanding you could be a realist and an idealist simultaneously. That’s what it means to be an adult, and that’s what it means to love something as an adult, whether it’s a country, a president or a person you’re in a relationship with. Discovering that was the most important thing that happened to me at the White House.