By Christi Parsons
August 2, 2009
Reporting from Washington — He sat with his legs crossed in an armchair in the Oval Office, his brow furrowed. Aides clustered on the couches around him. They could see black scratch marks all over their proposal for the most sensitive speech of his young presidency — his long-promised address to the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.
For weeks, they had toiled over the text. Now, some stole glances at the lead writer of the address, 31-year-old Ben Rhodes, as the lengthening silence confirmed that their best shot had fallen short.
Finally, President Obama dropped the manuscript into his lap and took a deep breath.
“I know you’ve been under a lot of pressure to get this right,” he said. “But this speech is way too cautious. We have to say everything and say everything candidly. I’m not going all the way to Cairo to do anything else.”
Despite the risk that he would give offense, he told his staff that he intended to address some of the most sensitive issues in foreign policy — terrorism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the inflammatory rhetoric of many Islamic leaders — in terms that would grab the world’s attention.
Obama worked his way around the cream-colored couches that flank the Oval Office fireplace, probing his aides’ thoughts.
“We knew all the arguments not to say things,” one recalled.
“He said, ‘Look, put all those concerns aside. We need to be aware of them. . . . But I’m not going to fail to raise 9/11. I’m not going to not talk about women’s rights in this way because it might be uncomfortable for some people.’ ”
The story of how the speech came into being is based on interviews with senior White House staffers and others directly involved. It reveals how Obama embraces opportunities for landmark addresses that can define him and his presidency — as he did in his campaign speech on race and the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. — and how once given the right platform he prepares obsessively.
Whatever else it achieved, the June 4 address at Cairo University inspired discomfort.
Some Israelis and American Jews recoiled at the way Obama juxtaposed the suffering of the Holocaust and centuries of anti-Semitic persecution with the experience of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
Some Muslims were stunned to hear a Christian American president quote the Koran as he spoke to them about changing their attitudes toward Israel.
Whether Obama’s blunt approach brings progress remains to be seen. What is already clear is that his outspokenness was no accident.
Line by line
On a Saturday morning in early May, not long after the milepost of the first hundred days of his presidency, Obama summoned several aides to the Oval Office. Sunshine streamed through the French doors that open onto the Rose Garden. Denis McDonough, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, was there.
So was Rhodes, who had abandoned youthful dreams of becoming a novelist in favor of public policy. Rhodes, who has a master’s degree in fiction writing from New York University, who had helped write the Iraq Study Group report and recommendations for the 9/11 Commission before working on Obama’s presidential campaign.
One of six White House speechwriters, Rhodes had written some of Obama’s most significant addresses, including foreign policy speeches during the campaign.
As a candidate, Obama had promised to give an address from a “major Islamic forum” at the outset of his presidency. The speech would signal a new day in U.S. relations with the Islamic world, he declared, and make it clear that “we are not at war with Islam.”
On this May morning in the White House, Obama was dressed in his weekend working uniform of shirt sleeves and slacks. Speaking without notes, he outlined the message he wanted to convey in Cairo.
As usual, Rhodes wrote furiously on a white legal pad.
As the address took shape, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who spent summers in Israel as a boy, would review almost every iteration.
David Axelrod, the president’s top political advisor, would be deeply involved. So would other political aides and national security officials.
But Rhodes would be the principal draftsman — with Obama passing judgment line by line.
The speech-writing team established a headquarters of sorts at the desk of Jenny Urizar, an assistant to McDonough. Her office space is designated as a secure site for storing sensitive information — a “skiff,” in White House parlance.
They began by drawing up lists of people to consult. “Make sure you talk to Muslims,” Obama had said.
Soon, scores of experts and advocates were sending memos, polling data and letters in hopes of influencing the speech.
One by one, the experts got calls from Pradeep Ramamurthy, an FBI terrorism analyst detailed to the National Security Council. Diplomats came to meetings under fluorescent lights in the West Wing basement. Think-tank experts streamed into the Old Executive Office Building in groups of a dozen or so.
One group of activists sent a letter urging that human rights get prominent play; the signers were invited in to talk. “We urged them to use the word ‘democracy,’ ” one said.
Other experts warned of pitfalls.
Talking about 9/11 would feed the theory widely believed in the Arab world that the U.S. had staged the attacks to justify military action against Islam. Decrying unequal treatment of women could bring charges of hypocrisy because of U.S. friendship with the likes of the Saudi royal family.
One especially emphatic warning came from a couple of Middle Eastern scholars. Beware of quoting the Koran, they said; the president might sound like he is pandering.
Worse, the complexities of Koranic interpretation might open Obama to ridicule by hostile clerics. Obama would “be playing on the turfs of the religious authorities,” said one person who was present. “And then who are people going to believe — the president of the United States, or the sheik?”
One member of the team would later refer to the group as “the Cairo cell.” With the deadline at hand, they had a well-researched, meticulously vetted text. The State Department had blessed it. So had Axelrod and Emanuel.
Everything seemed on track — until Obama announced his disappointment.
One attendee remembered something curious: At a certain point, Rhodes had stopped scribbling notes and just focused on the president’s face.
Later, a friend bumped into the young speechwriter. “He looked relieved,” the friend said, “even liberated.”
So many voices had been urging caution that, as one team member described it, “we were putting the brakes on ourselves.” Freed from those inhibitions, they tackled Obama’s detailed edits. Some were line changes. Others, mostly on the backs of pages, were exact text to insert.
The structure itself changed. Instead of flowing prose, they made it read more like a list, with topics dealt with in bullet form — violent extremism, nuclear disarmament, religious freedom.
That changed the message. It put women’s rights on par with the speech’s other main points, instead of making it a “throwaway line in the passage about democracy,” as one staffer put it.
Democracy got its own bullet point for emphasis.
In the Arab-Israeli passage, they crossed boundaries of political correctness: Jews had been persecuted for centuries, they wrote, and their aspiration for a homeland is “rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.” At the same time, the Palestinian people “have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.”
The earlier version hadn’t referred to the Holocaust, nor to the denial of it by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Now the team let fly: “Denying that fact is baseless. It is ignorant, and it is hateful.
“Threatening Israel with destruction, or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews, is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of the Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.”
Similarly, regarding Sept. 11, Obama would now bluntly declare, “I’m aware that there’s still some who would question or even justify the offense of 9/11. But let us be clear: Al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people on that day. . . . These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with.”
References to the Koran changed, too. Instead of tucking quotations deep in the speech, Rhodes followed Obama’s admonition to invoke the Islamic holy text more prominently.
Rashad Hussain, a devout Muslim on loan from the White House counsel’s office, suggested the passage: “There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another, and to seek common ground. As the Holy Koran tells us, ‘Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.’ ”
‘A musical impulse’
Obama went over the new text on Air Force One as he flew to an overnight stop in Saudi Arabia. As he read, he nodded, pausing now and then to ink in a thought or a suggestion.
That night, at the Riyadh ranch of King Abdullah, Obama had cardamom tea with the Saudi ruler. Emanuel went for a run in the 110-degree heat. Then Obama holed up with him, Axelrod and other senior staffers. Their buffet dinner simmered over cans of Sterno as they studied the text.
At midnight, the door to the staff work space creaked open. The president and his personal aide, Reggie Love, were delivering more changes.
On the two-hour flight to Cairo the next morning, Obama continued to tinker with the words and whisper parts of the speech to himself.
“He’s very focused on both content and cadence,” said Axelrod, “so he’ll move the order of words around in order to get the cadence that he wants. . . . It’s almost a musical impulse — how the words play against each other.”
Rhodes would punch each change into his laptop, then walk to the back of the plane and read them to the Arabic translator.
“You’ve had a tough job,” Obama said as they landed in the Egyptian capital.
A motorcade sped them through the streets. Then, surreally, the frenetic pace was interrupted as the president paused to tour the Sultan Hassan Mosque, one of the world’s oldest.
Hussain from the White House counsel’s office joined Rhodes, McDonough and others trailing behind Obama.
Afterward, there was a hint that the Cairo speech achieved at least one goal — reaching over the heads of leaders and making contact with ordinary Muslims.
Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, heard poignant evidence of that.
A friend in Cairo told Salem that on the day of the speech, he saw a little boy walking along the street, a smile on his face as he chanted in a soft, singsong voice: “Obama quoted the Koran. Obama quoted the Koran.”