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Mass. gift to Obama; HC valedictorian Favreau is top speechwriter.

Byline: Thomas Caywood

WORCESTER - Barack H. Obama's head speechwriter, Jonathan E. Favreau, didn't call the city home for long, but he certainly made an impression here.

The North Reading native racked up numerous honors as a political science student at the College of the Holy Cross, including valedictorian of the class of 2003, and impressed his professors with what they described as a refreshing combination of intellect and humility.

Mr. Favreau wrote for the school paper and volunteered at the UMass Memorial Medical Center oncology department in the evenings, sitting with cancer patients while they underwent treatment.

Now, less than five years out of Holy Cross, the 26-year-old is a key player in a presidential campaign - again.

After graduating from Holy Cross in 2003, Mr. Favreau made a beeline from College Hill to Capitol Hill. He worked his way up from low-level communications assistant to a plum speech writing job in U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry's unsuccessful bid for the White House.

In his current gig, Mr. Favreau travels the country with Mr. Obama, the Illinois Democrat vying for the party's presidential nomination, helping to craft the gifted public speaker's message. The two men typically sit down together and hash out speeches face to face, according to profiles of Mr. Favreau published recently in The New York Times and Newsweek.

That such a young man would have a key role in shaping the message of a leading presidential candidate comes as no surprise to Caren Dubnoff, an associate professor of political science at Holy Cross. Mr. Favreau was a student in her law, politics and society seminar in his junior year, and she supervised his senior honors thesis.

"I expected him to distinguish himself quickly, and he did," Mrs. Dubnoff said last week.

Mrs. Dubnoff considers herself a demanding and "fairly critical" educator, and she said it's unusual for her to gush about former students. But in Mr. Favreau's case, she can't help herself.

She's not alone.

"He was one of those kids that comes along once in a while that sets the place on fire," said Gary DeAngelis, associate director of the Holy Cross Center for Interdisciplinary and Special Studies.

The center runs the college's program for placing interns in government offices in Washington, D.C. Mr. Favreau interned in Sen. Kerry's office in 2002.

"I met with some of Kerry's aides at the time, and they were just absolutely raving about Jon. They made it clear to me that he was the best intern they had had in years," Mr. DeAngelis recalled. "When he graduated they immediately scooped him up."

David E. Wade, Mr. Kerry's deputy chief of staff, was the senator's communications director at the time. He hired Mr. Favreau.

"I called him in April of 2003. I said, `What day is your last exam, when do you give your speech and when can you get down here as our press assistant?'" Mr. Wade recalled.

As an intern, Mr. Favreau's job was to comb through newspapers from around the country, clipping out articles pertaining to Mr. Kerry. But Mr. Wade, himself a former speechwriter, recognized the young man's potential as a writer and began giving him writing assignments as well.

"Sometimes you see interns who try to distinguish themselves by constantly talking. They want to show you and tell you how much they know. Or they ask you endlessly if your job is like `The West Wing,'" Mr. Wade said. "Jon just very quietly, determinedly put his head down and distinguished himself through his writing."

It wasn't unusual for Mr. Favreau to be in the office by 6:30 a.m. and work until as late as 11 p.m.

When Mr. Favreau returned to Washington after graduation to work on Mr. Kerry's presidential campaign, he again set himself apart by preparing daily talking points for the media, Mr. Wade said.

"After he took care of the drudgery of pulling the news clips from 50 states and the Internet, he went on to write the message of the day," he said.

By the end of the campaign, Mr. Favreau had been promoted to Mr. Kerry's speechwriting team.

"This was clearly a young man in a hurry who was going to be going places. I thought he represented the right cocktail for politics: creativity, an unrelenting work ethic, enormous drive and a complete lack of ego," Mr. Wade said.

His former professors and others also stressed Mr. Favreau's self-effacing personality.

"He was very unassuming, but very, very bright. Modest in his demeanor," said state Sen. Michael R. Knapik, R-Westfield, a fellow Holy Cross alumnus. Mr. Favreau interned in his Boston office in the summer of 2002.

"He was just a refreshing young man. I'm delighted about his post-Holy Cross success in the political arena," Mr. Knapik said.

However, he said, as a good Republican he can't wish his former intern too much success in November. "I'll be happy to help him circulate his resume after the election," Mr. Knapik quipped. "He was just a good kid."

When Mr. Favreau was back in Massachusetts, between jobs after the 2004 presidential race, Mrs. Dubnoff invited him to dinner at her house in Newton. Mr. Favreau regaled her and her husband with tales from the campaign trail.

They were impressed with his insider's view of the rough-and-tumble world of national politics, but the experience didn't appear to have gone to his head. Rather than just grabbing any bottle of wine off the shelf on his way to dinner, the hot-shot political phenom found a kosher Israeli wine, knowing the Dubnoffs are Jewish. As it turns out, his hosts drink non-kosher wine, but they were impressed by his thoughtful effort.

"I actually said to him at one point I expected him to run for Senate. He laughed. He said it's a long way away," Mrs. Dubnoff recalled.

When she watched Mr. Obama's victory speech after the Iowa caucuses earlier this month, Mrs. Dubnoff couldn't help thinking of her former student.

"I commented to my husband, `I wonder if Jon wrote this.' I thought it was a great speech."

Mr. DeAngelis has had dinner with Mr. Favreau a few times over the years when he's been in Washington. Mr. DeAngelis also hasn't seen any signs of politics and success corroding the young man's affable personality.

"D.C. is absolutely full of ideologues, and Jon doesn't fall into any of that. He's committed to liberal politics, but he's open to divergent views," Mr. DeAngelis said. "I remember John Kennedy described himself as `an idealist without illusions.' That pretty much characterizes Jon."

And his four-year stopover in Worcester en route to Washington just might have had a little something to do with Mr. Favreau's success.

"I think Holy Cross was the perfect place for him because of the sense of social justice nurtured here and commitment to public service," Mr. DeAngelis said. "That's what Jon is all about."

Contact Thomas Caywood by e-mail at


CUTLINE: (1) Mr. Favreau (2) Jonathan E. Favreau, valedictorian of the class of 2003 at the College of the Holy Cross, gives a speech during the commencement ceremonies.

PHOTOG: Photos courtesy College of the Holy Cross/JOHN BUCKINGHAM
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jan 27, 2008
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