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An Interview with the Producer of “The Obama Years: The Power of Words”

By Sergie Willoughby /TNJ | 5/4/2017, midnight
President Barack Obama has been celebrated for many of his accomplishments during his time in office as the 44th president ...

President Barack Obama has been celebrated for many of his accomplishments during his time in office as the 44th president of the United States of America ranging from saving the U.S. auto industry to creating jobs to implementing the Affordable Care Act. But in her new documentary, “The Obama Years: The Power of Words,” producer/writer Jody Schiliro focuses on six of the 3,500 often moving, always intelligent speeches and statements he made during his historic two terms in office.

“I’ve always been interested in the way the White House works, and I produced two other documentaries about it. One was on resident workers in the White House who are plumbers, ushers, butlers, pastry chefs, etc., which was a unique insight into a world that not many people know about, one where these workers get to know the first family very well and on a personal level. The second one was on presidential photography and I interviewed five different photographers from five different administrations. In that one, I focused on Pete Souza who was President Obama’s photographer. Again, it was interesting because the photographers spend so much time with the president that they usually end up becoming very good friends with the president and view the presidency from a different vantage point. I thought the same about the speechwriters and the speechwriting process,” Schiliro told TNJ.com in an exclusive interview days ahead of the documentary’s premiere on Monday, February 27 on the Smithsonian Channel.

She continued, “What surprised me the most about this film as I started to do my research was how involved President Obama was in the speechwriting process. It’s another little niche and insight into how the White House works.”

Many of us met Barack Obama through our television screens during his captivating 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote speech when he spoke on patriotism and unity. And later, the Obama effect took hold as we watched him unite the country through thousands more memorable speeches.

In a statement released by the film’s producers, “By looking at six benchmark speeches, The Obama Years: The Power of Words examines how President Obama used ‘the bully pulpit’ first, as a brash young state senator and later, as a president grappling with turbulent times in the face of chaotic events.”

Narrated by actor/activist Jesse Williams and with commentary by some of Obama's longtime advisers and members of his inner circle such as Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, the film contains interviews with speechwriters Jon Favreau and Cody Keenan, and insight from esteemed historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Douglas Brinkley.

Here, we speak more with Schiliro about the development of the hour-long film about a president who, for eight years, eloquently delivered numerous speeches on the topics of race relations, patriotism, and hope and healing, when the country needed to hear it the most.

TNJ.com: Was there any research done to note how involved the president was in writing his speeches and how much input came from speechwriters?

Jody Schiliro: President Obama gave more than 3,500 speeches, so he did not have input on every single one but, and I think the speechwriters would agree, on the big speeches he was an integral part of the process. Many times, the speechwriters would go to the president when they knew there was a big speech coming up, for example, the 50th Anniversary of Selma. They’d sit down with the president and get his thoughts before they even started writing. The draft would go back and forth between the speechwriter and the president and many times, as we show in the film, sometimes he even sat down and wrote out the speeches himself, which he tends to write out on a yellow legal pad. So, some of the speeches were completely written by him.