Former Senior Speechwriter to President Barack Obama, Sarada Peri, joined Canadian Club Toronto on October 31st to discuss her experiences in the White House and the true power of language in times of uncertainty.
Club President Gillian Riley hosted the event, welcoming Peri as “one of the most effective speechwriters of our time”. The former teacher and Principal at West Wing Writers is now a Global Visiting Fellow at Ryerson Leadership Lab, prompting her visit to Toronto.
“Well this is intimidating.” Peri laughed, taking the podium. She began by praising the opportunity to visit Canada with the current state of affairs in America. “It’s a breath of fresh air to spend time in Toronto…and get much needed perspective.” On the same note, she expressed that she felt she had to apologize to Canadians for America’s “addiction to toxic politics.” Delving into her remarks, she promised to follow her own advice: “Be brief. Be honest. Pay your speechwriter on time.”
Peri fondly recalled Obama’s presidency, referring to him as the “one that got away”. His vision for the US and how he used words to shape the story of the nation were things she respected and believed were best case scenario, as evidenced throughout her address. The first time she truly understood his unique oratory gift she said, was at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Dinner in September of 2014. To prepare for one of her first assignments, she read the remarks from previous presidents and found that most contained platitudes about what their administration had done to combat inequalities without addressing the core causes of these inequalities or offering vision. The experience in itself was stressful, mortifying and surreal for Peri after dropping all of her belongings on the floor and being teased by President Obama. But looking back at the speech, she felt it really proved his ability to take the moment or event and place it within the “larger context of the American story.” His address at the Dinner veered off traditional course by opening with a frank discussion of civil rights in the US, and prompting Americans to continue this “never-ending project of perfecting the union.” Peri believed that this speech was an excellent example of American exceptionalism in Obama’s view: “America is special not because we are perfect. America is special because we work to address our problems to make our union more perfect.”
Obama’s first campaign in 2008 resonated with people around the world, Peri said. The universal message of love and hope over fear meant people “were able to place their own hopes and dreams into that vision.” She admitted that perhaps it was naïve to think that “speeches matter at all”, but affirmed that Obama consistently used his position to fit all narratives into the bigger picture. It makes sense that young nations like the US and Canada feel new and inexperienced because we are inherently tied to the struggles of our past, Peri said. President Obama wanted to make citizens realize their impact on something bigger than just themselves, and this was something he employed in all of his speeches no matter the size, she shared. His presidency created, in her eyes, a broader idea of what it means to be American. This meant giving respect to all areas of American life, including an important spotlight on arts and culture. Justin Trudeau’s tearful interview following the death of beloved Canadian musician Gord Downie reminded Peri of Obama’s goodbyes to a number of cultural icons that illustrated an authenticity that is an integral part of society. This seemingly overwhelming optimism by no means meant the President romanticized his role or the state of the nation, Peri said. But rather, that he was willing to tell “brave truths” in order to build a better society. His approach didn’t capture everyone in the same way, Peri admitted. For every one person that respected his endeavour to be honest about American shortcomings, there was another that thought anything of the sort was unpatriotic. For example, his address at the National Prayer Breakfast received heavy backlash after he suggested that every religion had experienced violent extremism at some point in history. One senator declared this “the most offensive, unpatriotic thing an American had ever said.” So of course he wasn’t capable of persuading everyone, but truthful and authentic above all else, she added.
“Isn’t Trump authentic?” she asked, mirroring the voices of the media. While his supporters would insist he’s brave, “…saying whatever nonsense comes out of your head and berating Americans with racist, sexist and offensive tropes is in no way brave.” There is nothing courageous or truthful or authentic in throwing kindle on the deeply burning hatred living in some people, she said. On his ability to lead the country successfully, Peri believes Trump will always fall short. Quite simply, she posed: “You can’t lead the country if you’re alienating half of it.” The difference between Obama’s authenticity and Trump’s perceived authenticity is that Obama’s truth lies in being honest about touchy subjects “but not for shock value.” The bully pulpit, a term thought to be coined by former US President Theodore Roosevelt, expresses the inherent power that comes along with the presidential role to advocate change for the nation. In Peri’s words, our best presidents have created moments of unity through bully pulpit; the current president “uses the pulpit to bully”. She reminded the audience that Trump didn’t secure office by himself. A number of people and systems were complicit in his election: media that dedicated air time to catching his every move and drew parallels between the shortcomings of him, and his competitor Hilary Clinton, social media outlets that allowed the planting of targeted stories by Russian hackers (a story still developing, Peri pointed out), and of course, “deep and damaging misogyny that rewarded a self-proclaimed sexual predator”. Getting out of this situation is on us, Peri asserted. “The forces at work here are bigger than the powers of presidential persuasion.”
The day after the 2016 Presidential Election was a very sad scene at the White House, Peri recalls. Obama staffers joined on the colony overlooking the infamous rose garden. Despite the sorrow that hung in the air, Obama spoke with his staffers: “We zig and zag. Sometimes we move in ways that people think are moving forward, and others think are moving back.” He shared the universal truth that progress does not lie in one person, or even a generation. To close, Peri echoed these thoughts: “Presidents can try to offer us their vision and persuade us, but whether we choose to follow is up to us.”
Gillian Riley took the stage once again to kick off the Q&A portion of the afternoon. The first question asked about the composition of the “Amazing Grace” speech, which took place in Charleston, South Carolina after the mass murder of nine black churchgoers by a white supremacist. Though Peri was not involved with the speech, she expressed that having someone with lived experience (in this case, a Black man who had dealt with racism his entire life) really mattered. He debated on the plane ride over about actually singing Amazing Grace, which he did.
When asked how Democrats could rise above “the Twitter President”, Peri suggested focussing on the goings on in the lives of Americans and how Republican policy and this presidency have impacted their lives.
Taking another question from the audience, Riley asked Peri what her vision for the American story is. Though it may be a cop out, she said, she truly shares Obama’s vision of being part of the larger picture. Understanding patriotism as simply standing and saluting is “a really dangerous path”, she said. America is a nation of immigrants, “born out of original sin” and colonialism that must keep striving for better and offering life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for absolutely everyone, she insisted.
The last question asked Peri what speech she was proudest of during her time in the Oval Office. “I give a different answer every time I’m asked this.” Ultimately, she decided her work on Obama’s keynote speech at the State of Women Summit was her shining moment. In speeches like these, there is usually plenty of jargon about women’s empowerment and “shout outs to the interest group”, she said. Instead, Obama’s address held everyone accountable for these inequalities and also shared why women’s ideas and issues affect everyone in a “raw and honest way”.
Sarada Peri’s reality, like many Americans, has changed drastically since her time in the White House. It is hard to imagine that there has ever been such a remarkable juxtaposition of leaders in such a short period. Despite the constant reminders of what was, and now what is, Peri embodies the same optimism as her former boss. “Something that hasn’t changed is a democracy is still best run on the fuel of hope, not fear.”
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Special thanks to Sarada Peri for being a guest of Canadian Club Toronto. Thanks extended to Canadian Club Toronto President Gillian Riley for hosting.