The day after the bombings turned the finish line of the Marathon into a scene of carnage, word around the White House was that President Obama might travel to Boston and speak at a memorial service. It wasn’t definite. Boylston Street was still littered with debris. A massive manhunt was underway, and there were fears of more bombings. But there wasn’t any time to waste. If Obama were to go, he’d speak in about 48 hours.
As one of his speechwriters, I had a sense that this tragedy struck close to home for the president. Obama knew Boston. As a student at Harvard Law School, he lived in Somerville. He gave his breakout political speech, at the 2004 Democratic convention, at what’s now the TD Garden. Boston had always welcomed him, as well as the first lady when she was at Harvard Law.
The bombing hit close to home for me as well. My mum hails from a large Irish Catholic family in Roslindale, and after I was born we lived in a small, second-story apartment on Durnell Avenue. Even after we moved to Falmouth, Boston brought our family together. At Christmas, aunts, uncles, and cousins crammed into my grandparents’ home on Havana Street, and for generations we’ve gathered for baptisms, weddings, and funerals at Holy Name Parish.
As a speechwriter, I’ve always tried to write with someone specific in mind — a real, living person the speech should connect with, deeply, emotionally. That week, I kept thinking of my family and friends across Massachusetts, especially one of my uncles, Dan Saunders. He was Boston to his core: an altar boy at Holy Name, Roslindale High class of ‘65, Army Reserve, and a season ticket holder to Boston College football and hockey games. He was also a fixture at more than a few Boston bars, including the Corrib Pub in West Roxbury and the old Green Briar in Brighton, where he’d belt out ballads with the Irish musicians on Monday nights.
A staunch conservative, my Uncle Dan was no fan of Obama — and he let me know it, which made for some lively discussions at Thanksgiving. Still, as I worked on the president’s remarks, I imagined Uncle Dan watching the speech at a pub with his friends. What would he want to hear?
The evening before the service, I sent a draft to Obama, who usually reviewed speeches in his study on the second floor of the White House. The next morning, his edits were waiting on a desk just outside the Oval Office. Much of what I’d written was intact, but he’d made extensive changes to just about every paragraph.
An early line in the speech quoted an E.B. White poem that described Boston as not just a capital or a place, but “the perfect state of grace.” In exquisite penmanship across the top of the page, Obama added an entire new paragraph that echoed the poem and touched on the healing that was needed:
“And so we come together to pray, and mourn, and measure our loss. But we also come together today to reclaim that state of grace — to reaffirm that the spirit of this city is undaunted, and the spirit of this country shall remain undimmed.”
Reflecting on his time in the city, he added, “There’s a piece of Boston in me,” and “for millions of us, what happened on Monday is personal.” Toward the end, in a hopeful line about the future — how the Sox, Patriots, and Bruins would be champions again, with parades down Boylston Street —he added, “to the chagrin of New York and Chicago fans.”
I spent most of the flight on Air Force One making his changes and then circulated what I thought was the final version. Instead, Obama casually walked back and handed me another round of edits. He was still thinking, still trying to capture the essence of what had happened — how the city, and the country, could move forward. His writing was taking on a more spiritual tone, weaving a passage of Scripture — ”For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but one of power and love and self-discipline” — more deeply throughout the text.
There was only one problem. Air Force One was already descending into Logan, and the motorcade would head straight to the service. I didn’t want to get stuck in a staff van, with spotty Internet, frantically trying to type in his final edits as we bounced through the streets of the South End. So I decided to stay behind and finish on the plane, which meant watching the service like most Americans — on TV.
At the pulpit at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, with some 2,000 people filling the pews, Obama started slowly, deliberately, pausing every few words to let his words sink in.
He painted a picture of “a beautiful day to be in Boston” — fans at Fenway, runners lacing up their shoes in Hopkinton, people lining the streets to hand them cups of water — and, then, how “in an instant, the day’s beauty was shattered.” He celebrated Boston as a city that “opens its heart” to the world, including the runners he described — in a Whitmanesque sentence he had added earlier — as “a gathering of men and women of every race and every religion, every shape and every size; a multitude...”
Obama paid tribute to the three lives lost in the blasts: Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu, and little Martin Richard, just 8 years old, who’d been eating ice cream with his family. Obama spoke to the injured, some watching from hospital beds across the city, telling them “You will run again!”
Then, about halfway through his speech, Obama’s tone shifted. He spoke directly to the people of Boston and channeled the spirit of defiance and resilience that had taken hold that week.
“Your resolve is the greatest rebuke to whoever committed this heinous act. If they sought to intimidate us, to terrorize us, to shake us from those values...that make us who we are, as Americans — well, it should be pretty clear by now that they picked the wrong city to do it.”
The church erupted into applause, and the audience was on its feet. But Obama didn’t stop. He leaned into the microphone and continued. “Not here in Boston! Not here in Boston!”
He described runners being knocked down by the blast, but getting back on their feet, “We’ll pick ourselves up. We’ll keep going. We will finish the race!”
Obama was turning a sermon into a rally — not only about how to deal with death, but how to live our lives. As his remarks built to a crescendo, he rode the emotion in the church, practically yelling over the applause.
“And this time next year, on the third Monday in April, the world will return to this great American city to run harder than ever, and to cheer even louder, for the 118th Boston Marathon. Bet on it!”
The Bostonians in the pews were on their feet again, clapping and cheering. Some pumped their fists into the air. This wasn’t a city in fear. It was a community, and a country, that was strong, resilient, refusing to be terrorized.
Back on Air Force One, David Simas, one of the president’s political advisers, and a native of Taunton, said the speech was “a love letter to Boston.” I felt that way, too. News coverage showed people gathered outside the cathedral and crowded into restaurants and bars, taking in Obama’s words the way a speech is meant to be received — together, a communal experience.
Sometime that afternoon, I noticed a new voice mail on my phone.
“Terry, this is your Uncle Dan,” he said, in his thick Boston accent.
I was surprised. He rarely called. He couldn’t have known that I’d helped with the speech, or that, as I worked on it, I was doing it for him. From the noise in the background, I could tell he was at one of his favorite pubs. “I just watched the president’s speech. We all did,” he said. “He did a good job. It was a very fine speech, and I just wanted you to know that.”
It wasn’t much. But coming from my uncle, it was high praise. In an era when we seem perpetually divided, it was a glimpse, however brief, of the country we might yet become — living proof of a line in the speech Obama had written himself.
“Our faith in each other, our love for each other, our love for country, our common creed that cuts across whatever superficial differences there may be — that is our power. That’s our strength. That’s why a bomb can’t beat us.”