Presidential Rhetoric Comes to Duke

Wednesday, May 6, 2015
Humanities Writ Large

Jon Favreau, former chief speechwriter for President Obama, brought his incomparable experience to Duke on April 21. Favreau had his “stamp on all the great speeches from 2005 to early 2013,” according to former Obama chief advisor David Axelrod. Over the course of a full, productive day, he engaged with several groups of Duke undergraduates and delivered a public talk.

For Democracy and Law: Ancient and Modern, an HWL Emerging Network, Favreau's visit was the centerpiece of a semester-long seminar series tied to the network's Signature Course, Democracy: Ancient to Modern. The course, taught by Classical Studies professor Jed Atkins, explored topics central to democratic thought and practice in both America and Athens, including freedom, equality and rights, constitutions and institutions, citizenship, rhetoric, decision-making, foreign policy, corruption, religion, and hope. Its seminar series mixed talks from visiting political science professors with student-organized discussion.

Favreau's public lecture, "Words Matter," was an deeply informed and engaging meditation on democratic rhetoric. A highlight of the talk was the five lessons he learned during his years with President Obama (distilled from tweets collected on a Storify page and an article in Duke Today):

  1. The story is more important than the words.
  2. Take your job seriously, but don't take yourself seriously. Humor is powerful.
  3. Talk like a normal human being. Even industry people don't like industry speak.
  4. Be honest and authentic. And get your facts right.
  5. Maintain idealism: Cynicism is just as much of a choice as hope is.

Favreau's visit was co-hosted by the Kenan Institue for Ethics and Democracy and Law: Ancient and Modern. His talk was co-sponsored by the Sanford School of Public Policy and the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy.