Leaving West Wing to pursue Hollywood dream
Mass. native who wrote Obama’s speeches to work on screenplay
WASHINGTON – He didn’t mean to break it to the president just yet. But President Obama picked up on the excitement in his young speechwriter’s voice when the two chatted about Hollywood aboard Air Force One on their return from a fund-raising dinner at George Clooney’s Los Angeles home last May.
Jon Favreau, the North Reading wunderkind who has channeled Obama’s voice since 2005 after meeting the junior senator at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, was considering a switch to screenwriting. His eagerness became apparent when he told Obama that NBC had picked up “1600 Penn,” a political comedy cocreated by Jon Lovett, another former Obama speechwriter whom Favreau had caught up with before departing Los Angeles.
“I started talking about how I wanted to do that someday,” Favreau said, during an interview Thursday in his West Wing basement office. Favreau recalled the president saying, “Wow, you really sound like you want to do this soon. Are you planning on leaving after the election?”
Friday was Favreau’s last day in the White House. Flattened cardboard boxes resting next to a conference table were to be filled with memorabilia. There was the photo of Favreau and Obama in the Oval Office working on his first address to a joint session of Congress. And the one featuring the final page of Obama’s health care speech, the president’s scrawl marking up the text to reflect the thoughts Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy had shared from his deathbed.
It is a bittersweet time for the 31-year-old, who got his start in politics a decade ago writing speeches for then-presidential candidate John F. Kerry. Obama has been Favreau’s boss for nearly his entire adulthood, since soon after he graduated with degrees in political science and sociology from the College of the Holy Cross in 2003.
This week, Favreau and Dedham native Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council whose office is down the hall, will launch their communications consulting firm – Fenway Strategies – to try to earn a living while they collaborate on a screenplay or television series about their time in Washington.
“It’s incredibly weird,” Favreau said. “When I first made the decision to leave I was very excited and relieved, and the closer I get to the exit there is a lot more nostalgia and anxiety mixed in. It will take some getting used to not coming here every day and unplugging from the daily insanity of the White House.”
He called Obama the “best boss and best teacher I ever had,” but he feels like he’s already served his two terms and it’s time to try something new.
For now, Favreau plans to stay put in Washington and locate Fenway Strategies here – “We’re still trying to find a location that’s not one of our couches.” A third partner, Ben Schwerin, a Wellesley native and former aide to President Bill Clinton, will be based in Los Angeles.
Favreau plans to spend a week in March unwinding in Fort Myers, Fla., where his parents live most of the year, as well as visiting his grandmother in Tewksbury and the professors at Holy Cross he credits with helping launch his career.
He got his start in Washington in Kerry’s press office during a Holy Cross internship, when he helped ghostwrite op-ed pieces for the Bay State senator. He so impressed David Wade, Kerry’s chief of staff, that Wade hired him as one of the first recruits to Kerry’s presidential campaign. Watching Favreau’s talents emerge was like “a scene in ‘Good Will Hunting,’ ” said Wade, marveling at Favreau’s journey.
“To paraphrase Forrest Gump, interns are like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get. Some treat Washington internships like cameo appearances on the ‘West Wing.’ Jon ended up in the real West Wing because he had the opposite approach,” Wade said. “He had a soul. He cared about Massachusetts and progressive ideals in keeping with the best of Jesuit education.”
During the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Favreau was famously dispatched by Kerry’s team to tell Obama, who was delivering the keynote address, to remove a line in his speech that was too similar to what Kerry was going to say. A year later Obama hired him and Favreau became the second youngest head speechwriter in presidential history.
His only hiccup occurred shortly after Obama’s 2008 election when a photo surfaced on Facebook of Favreau groping a life-size cardboard cutout of Hillary Rodham Clinton during a party that his parents threw for him. Favreau apologized to the then newly named secretary of state and onetime Obama rival.
Kerry, responding this week from Rome on his first diplomatic mission as secretary of state, said he reconnected with Favreau last fall at Obama’s debate camp and was struck that even after his eight-year ride, “he remained a humble, humorous, sincere guy who puts his head down and writes with passion.”
But Hollywood beckons. Favreau’s younger brother, Andy, is an actor in Los Angeles and will appear in an upcoming episode of “1600 Penn.” His childhood friend Josh Porter, a Goldman Sachs financial adviser, is also out there.
Vietor, who timed his departure from the White House with Favreau, said the pair has one specific project in mind — combining comedy and drama — stemming from their months on the campaign trail with Obama in 2007 and 2008.
“There are these experiences that happen behind the scenes that are hilarious and quirky and you meet these characters on the road you’ve never seen before — we’re trying to bring that to life and also tell a broader story about politics and the media, and the state of both,” said Vietor, 32. He is a former Obama deputy press secretary who first bonded with Favreau over the Red Sox, their Massachusetts ties, and their similar paths to politics.
They’ve discussed modeling their project after shows they admire, like the political drama and Netflix series “House of Cards” and the HBO series “The Wire,” but won’t divulge other details. Favreau said he’s also reviewed many iterations of the “1600 Penn” script with Lovett. Among his other TV favorites: “West Wing,” “Mad Men,” and “Friday Night Lights.”
And while he described the Oscar-nominee “Lincoln” as brilliant, his all-time favorite movie is “Good Will Hunting” — “I realize it’s a cliché because I’m from Boston.”
Favreau, who has spent some time looking back and reminiscing on the speeches he’s written, concedes it may be challenging to write in his own voice again.
“We’ll see if I can get the president’s voice out of my head, or if we’ve just merged,” he joked. “Maybe there will be a few ‘looks’ and ‘let’s be clears’ coming from me for the time being.”
On Tuesday, flying back to Washington from Virginia, Obama turned to Favreau and told him he was particularly proud of one thing: that all the trips on Air Force One and Marine One helped Favreau conquer his anxiety about flying.
“Air Force One definitely cured my fear,” said Favreau, who used to grip his seat nervously. “Let’s hope it translates to the commercial kind after I leave.”