By Meg Campbell
During his eight years in office, President Barack Obama delivered more than 3,500 speeches and statements. A new Smithsonian Channel special premiering tonight at 8 p.m. looks back at the presidency of President Obama, “writer in chief,” through the lens of six defining speeches and the people who knew him best.
— Smithsonian Channel (@SmithsonianChan) February 23, 2017
Leading up to its premiere, The Obama Years: The Power of Words has been screened in museums across the country. On Feb. 23, Comcast, Smithsonian Channel, and Senator John Heinz History Center hosted a reception, advance screening and discussion at the History Center.
“What we were trying to do is really take a look at Obama as the writer-in-chief and so we traced his trajectory. It’s not his entire presidency, we actually go back to 2004 when he made his debut on the national stage at the Democratic National Convention,” said Charles Poe, senior vice president of production at the Smithsonian Channel.
“It’s not meant to be the definitive story of the Obama administration. It’s really narrowly focused on how he was trying to shape his message and how he responded to events and how he and his advisors try to craft his story…We have some great behind the scenes with what I would say are usually the unseen heroes, the speechwriters themselves.”
A key theme in the film, Poe says, is the challenges those speechwriters faced in writing for a president who was himself a writer and a bestselling author. The film features speechwriters Jon Favreau and Cody Keenan, as well as Valerie Jarrett, Representative John Lewis, David Axelrod, Douglas Brinkley and Doris Kearns Goodwin.
For Toni Murphy, vice president of the project management office and customer experience at Comcast and Comcast, the partnership and screening was an opportunity to celebrate Black History Month by sharing great content with the communities they serve.
“At Comcast we’re committed to diversity and inclusion and for us, having partnerships with organizations that foster that are really important to us,” Murphy shared. “I’m grateful that I work for a company that believes in those partnerships and we have an opportunity to bring this content to those organizations.”
The film resonates with her personally, too. “My kids are 5, 3 and 1, and they all were born during the Obama years and my daughter said to me the other day when we were watching the inauguration, she said, ‘Mommy, I didn’t know that the president could be white.’ It was hilarious!”
“But it was also a real awakening moment for me that the reality that I faced when I was a kid, thinking that it would never happen…it is honestly one of the most incredible transitions in a generation. For me, that’s why I’m so excited to be here. It’s amazing to think that I have three brown children growing up in this world and they’ve seen something that most people never thought would happen.”
Prior to the film, Andrew Masich, president and CEO of the History Center, Sam Black, director of African-American programming at the History Center, Murphy and Poe offered welcoming remarks.
During the 50-minute documentary, the room filled with the audience’s laughter and tears, but just as often rapt silence as they watched and relived some of President Obama’s most impactful and memorable moments.
“I would say that after seeing this…there are three words that clearly define the man: Dignity, love and understanding,” opened Dr. Gerald R. Shuster, political communication analysis and presidential rhetoric professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s department of communications during the post-film panel.
“Remember how often you heard throughout the course of this particular presentation how often he took over the speeches and handwrote them…When you’re using the pen on paper, you can see that the difference emanates from the heart, and it showed in the words that he chose. That’s what allowed him to be the orator with heartfelt impressions on the audience.”
The audience offered up questions on the speechwriting process, the next four years, and the making of the film. Some offered their reactions, such as one audience member who shared:
“I was so moved by The Power of Words. I believe words matter, I believe words make a difference, and the reason I loved President Obama so much is not because of the color of his skin, but because I believed when he spoke to the people he talked to everyone.”
Attendees left with a copy of the documentary and high praise for the film. The Obama Years: The Power of Words premieres tonight at 8 p.m. ET/PT.