Twenty-five years ago, the Wayland native behind Michelle Obama’s emotional Monday night speech at the Democratic National Convention was an eighth grader visiting Washington with her Claypit Hill elementary school classmates.
The White House tour overwhelmed her.
“I just remember being totally blown away and saying to one of my teachers, ‘I want to come back here, I want to be involved in this,’ ” Sarah Hurwitz said in a video interview a few years ago.
And Hurwitz, 39, got very involved.
A speechwriter for the Obamas for eight years and Michelle Obama’s chief writer for about seven, Hurwitz wrote the Monday night address that has been hailed as a high-water mark of the convention season.
“It was a wonderful speech,” said Carol Hardy-Fanta, a senior fellow at the McCormack Graduate School at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies and writes about gender, race, and ethnicity in politics and public policy. “And it’s nice to have the speechwriter get a little credit.”
On Twitter, ABC News’ chief political analyst Matthew Dowd called the address the “most effective speech” of the last two weeks — “and really the season.”
“Now this is a speech that will be remembered,” Jon Favreau, Barack Obama’s chief speechwriter from 2005 to 2013, wrote on Twitter. Hurwitz, he wrote, went 3-for-3 in writing convention speeches for Michelle Obama, “and saved the best for last.”
Hurwitz, a Harvard Law graduate, also wrote for Hillary Clinton during her 2008 campaign. Her first assignment with the Obama campaign, according to a June profile in the Washington Post: Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 Denver convention — the same speech allegedly plagiarized by the writer of Melania Trump’s address at the Republican National Convention.
Though it’s impossible to say for sure, that likely made Hurwitz the first speechwriter to write — albeit unwittingly — for a sitting first lady and a would-be first lady from the opposite party at dueling conventions.
Speechwriters rarely speak publicly, particularly in the wake of a major address, and Hurwitz did not respond to interview requests on Tuesday.
But in a June profile in the Washington Post, Hurwitz described the process by which she and the first lady craft her speeches, trading drafts that emphasize the big ideas Michelle Obama hopes to convey in all of her speeches.
“As I write for her now, I’m sort of editing the speech with her voice in my head because she’s given me so much feedback over the years and been so clear about what she wants,” Hurwitz told the Post.
On Monday night, that meant speaking warmly about raising two girls under an intense microscope at the White House, and also excoriating Republican nominee Donald Trump — without actually naming him.
“I want someone with the proven strength to persevere,” Michelle Obama said. “Somebody who knows this job and takes it seriously. Somebody who understands that the issues of our nation are not black or white. It cannot be boiled down to 140 characters. Because when you have the nuclear codes at your fingertips and the military in your command, you can’t make snap decisions. You can’t have thin skin or a tendency to lash out.”
That rhetorical trick — invoking an opponent but not naming him — turns passive listeners active, said Kathleen Kendall, research professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland, College Park, who studies political speeches.
“It’s better if people fill it in themselves,” Kendall said. “That’s a strength of speeches from Aristotle to the present.”
For Obama — and surely for Hurwitz as well — the speech came at a critical juncture. For the first time, the first lady took the stage to endorse another woman — a former first lady in her own right.
Monday’s speech wove together themes of race and gender, juxtaposing the legacy of slavery with her own daughters’ lives in the White House, and the example Clinton sets for them as the first woman with a real chance to become president.
“I know that a lot of girls end up feeling like they’re not taken seriously,” Hurwitz said in the video, years before the speech that electrified Democrats by invoking, in some small way, the same ideas. “But I feel like I was always really encouraged by my teachers. They always took me seriously.”