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Book Review: “A Part of Small Miracles”

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Part historical account of the Obama White House. Part masters class in presidential speechwriting and political campaigning. Part Veep episode about a government servant. David Litt delivers in his debut memoir, Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years.

Conservatives may have to put some of their personal feelings aside—and I hope you do. Because beyond the left-leaning slant is an exquisitely written story of a speechwriter’s personal and professional growth.

As one of President Obama’s comedy writers—David Litt tells the story in exactly the way you hope he would, with levity, pitch-perfect humor, and precisely hilarious metaphors to depict every story—all without an ounce of arrogance or self-aggrandizement. He repeatedly and endearingly denies having played an important role:

“So,” POTUS asked, “are we funny?”

This was less of a question than an invitation to make small talk. [Chief speechwriter] Cody [Keenan] didn’t miss a beat.

“Well, Litt’s pretty funny,” he said, nodding in my direction.

A brief hint of confusion crossed the president’s face. He clearly wasn’t sure he’d heard right. But after a moment’s pause, he decided to keep going.

“Yeah,” POTUS said. “Lips is funny.”

As you might imagine, I have replayed this moment frequently in my head. Perhaps I simply misheard the president. Perhaps time has warped my memory. But I don’t think so. I’m fairly certain Barack Obama called me Lips.

As a speechwriter, you see yourself in Litt, battling the common struggles of a young career. But you also recognize quickly what separates him from the rest of us: comedic genius. Like great stand-up routines or brilliant lyrics from a songwriter, he manages to find the perfectly-absurd wording, exact pop culture reference, amusing metaphor, or clever description to tell his story. You can easily see why President Obama’s past White House Correspondent’s Dinner performances were so funny and why he wound up at Funny or Die:

This concept—self-depreciation—is one that a surprising number of important people fail to grasp. I know far too many speechwriters who have lived through some version of the following exchange:

POLITICIAN (doing his best cool dad impression): I love making fun of myself! Whadaya got?

SPEECHWRITER (nervous): Well, I was thinking we could joke about the idea that you’re kind of a diva?

POLITICIAN (recipient of a sudden personality transplant): What? A diva? Why would anyone find that funny?

If you ever find yourself on the receiving end of this question, here is my advice. Do not answer it! Fake a seizure. Play dead. Flee the country. Whatever you do, don’t open your mouth.

Through his eight-year journey, David Litt lets us peek behind the curtain at real daily life in the White House. From dispensing with The West Wing fantasy to highlighting struggles between writers and researchers to illustrating the slow slog and inglorious progress of a civil servant’s career, he has brought a humanity to the pleasure of serving a president and a nation:

On some level, every White House staffer is an alchemist. You arrive at the building full of faith in miracles, striving to craft something flawless and shiny from the leaden scraps of real-world events. Before long, however, you realize it’s never going to happen. Anything involving the real world, no matter how well-executed, is bound to be impure.

Then one day, if you’re lucky, you’re going about your business when a shiny, golden nugget appears as if by magic in your lap. It’s one of the greatest gifts of public service: you get to be part of small miracles, long after you’ve stopped believing that miracles of any size occur.

His earnestness leavened by humor and anecdotes, in perfect comedic speechwriter fashion, after all the pithy comments and the reader laughing out loud far more than expected, David Litt turns to the most important part: The Serious Close.

In reflecting on his time in the White House and the months between the 2016 election and the time he wrote this book, he brings a sobering analysis to the current state of affairs. You suddenly find yourself completely understanding the calling and the necessity of public service—and why now, in 2017, it’s more important than ever.

Funny, raw, and well-told, David Litt’s memoir is a pleasure to read.