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The Last 100 Days: Statements of Solace edition

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent

Ever since the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, presidents have been judged on the successes they notch during their first 100 days. Now, as Barack Obama prepares to end his historic turn on the political stage, Yahoo News is running The Last 100 Days, a look at what Obama achieved during his consequential presidency, how he navigates the struggles of his last months in office and what lies ahead for him after eight years filled with firsts. We will also look at how the country bids farewell to its first African-American president.

It’s not a literal 100 days — Obama leaves office in late January 2017.

And it won’t all be about policy. As Obama himself is fond of noting, he also spent his two terms as father to daughters Malia and Sasha and husband to first lady Michelle Obama. And even without much input from the White House, the cultural landscape shifted dramatically over his two terms on issues such as gay rights.

And then there’s the way the president sees the presidency — not just his tumultuous years at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but also the institution and its relationships (for better or worse) with other branches of government and with the news media.

In this eleventh installment, we look into the White House’s process of drafting condolence statements after deaths.

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President Obama’s condolences must be heartfelt, humorous and human.

Modern American presidents are often at their most eloquent in moments of national grief. Ronald Reagan’s 1986 elegy for the astronauts who died when the space shuttle Challenger exploded moments after liftoff captured the country’s fear and sense of loss while expressing a defiant desire to reach for the stars. Bill Clinton’s empathy and words of comfort to Oklahoma City less than a week after the 1995 bombing there blended understanding of personal loss with promises of a nation’s support. George W. Bush gave a lot of speeches after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but his most memorable remarks were an impromptu promise, delivered while Ground Zero rubble still smoldered, to find those responsible and punish them.

On this score, Obama has been tested perhaps more than most, delivering memorable and searingly emotional speeches after shootings, including an unheeded call to move past partisanship in the aftermath of the January 2011 shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that targeted Rep. Gabby Giffords.

But far from the TV lights, unremembered on YouTube, unlikely to inspire many treatises on presidential rhetoric, presidents issue hundreds, perhaps thousands of official expressions of condolences. These brief written statements honor and mourn celebrities, politicians, friends, the famous as well as the forgotten, or ordinary people caught up in extraordinary drama, like the victims of terror attacks.

Some, like the statement Obama released last week about the death of Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej, reflect the imperatives of diplomacy — a show of respect to the Thai people and a message to an entire region worried about China’s rise that America cares enough to pay attention. (Note: When the White House Americanizes a name from a foreign alphabet, the National Security Council coordinates with the State Department to agree on a spelling, aides say.)

Others are deeply personal, like the statement the president released after the tragic death of White House official Jake Brewer, which reached the smallest but most important audience.

https://twitter.com/WhiteHouse/status/645669584146706433?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

“His job, and his thirst for public service, were such a huge part of who Jake was,” Brewer’s widow, conservative journalist Mary Katherine Ham, told Yahoo News.

“Our kids don’t get to see that and learn about it firsthand, and I don’t have a ton of stuff to give them from their father. A statement from a president — any president — is an honor and an heirloom. This one speaks so clearly about who their father was, and I’m so glad we have it,” Ham said by email. “Though I’m as surprised as anyone to have ended up with something from President Obama hanging on my wall. I’m sure Jake’s getting a laugh out of that.”

The process for writing a presidential condolence statement is disorganized. “It’s not systematic, in fact it’s a little ad hoc,” according to a senior White House official, who requested anonymity to discuss behind-the-scenes logistics.

“There wasn’t a rule” for when to issue a presidential statement, according to Dana Perino, George W. Bush’s final press secretary. “I tended to favor issuing statements if it was someone of cultural significance,” like James Brown, she said. “Sometimes the president knew the person,” Perino told Yahoo News. “Not many Hollywood types — but I remember one famous golfer died and they asked me to write a statement for him. I didn’t even know who the guy was!” she said.

The process, such as it is, starts when the White House learns of someone’s death. This can come from many different sources — an embassy notifying the State Department that a notable foreign official has died, a reporter emailing a request for comment, or a “breaking news” segment on one of the cable news channels that are perpetually on West Wing TV screens. For Brewer, it was co-workers who let the White House know. For Leonard Nimoy, aka “Mr. Spock,” it was an email from a reporter. For Prince, the president and senior aides learned on an Air Force One flight from Saudi Arabia to London — and held an impromptu dance party homage to the rock legend by playing some of his hits in the flying fortress’ conference room, according to one participant.

Not every celebrity gets a statement. Some slip through the cracks. A senior White House aide close to the writing process expressed dismayed surprise when Yahoo News informed him that there had been no public expression of mourning for comedy legend Gene Wilder. The same aide expressed less surprise about the absence of a statement for Michael Jackson. “Ehhh, that’s a minefield,” he said. (The White House reaction to the King of Pop’s demise came from then-press secretary Robert Gibbs, who got a little snippy when asked about the lack of a written comment. You can read it here.) But the president’s speechwriters don’t skip a statement for partisan leanings, aides say.

A White House aide said Obama approves of every condolence statement that goes out. In general, while White House staff often drives the process, “the president is going to pick who’s important to them,” the aide explained. This president has been particularly attuned to celebrities and political figures important to African-Americans. “If it’s a civil rights leader, you can bet we’ll have a statement,” the aide explained. One of the most personal statements of the Obama era was for actress Ruby Dee, a civil rights activist. “Michelle and I will never forget seeing her on our first date as Mother Sister in Do the Right Thing,’” it says in part.

When a statement has diplomatic or national security implications, it can get batted around from the White House to other agencies that might have an interest in the phrasing, or in including or omitting, certain details. “A lot of people are given the opportunity to take a look, [but] not necessarily given an opportunity to sign off,” a senior Obama aide told Yahoo News.

As Perino indicated, it’s common for aides not to know much about the person they’re trying to eulogize on behalf of the president. Even when they know a little, the research portion of writing one of these statements is a complicated process.

Unlike news organizations, which typically have obituaries of prominent people ready to go, the White House does not prewrite its statements. “We have never, ever, ever had these in the can,” a senior official said. The only exception to that rule was South African President Nelson Mandela — and that was an accident. “Somebody had told us in 2009 that he’d died, so we had something basically put together, though it needed to be updated,” the official said. And even then, Obama “basically rewrote it” on the flight from Washington to South Africa.

The Internet has made research for condolence messages easier, but the writing of them a bit more difficult. “I don’t ever, ever want these to read like a Wikipedia article,” a senior official involved in the process said. “And this is hard to do in the age of Twitter. People tweet the best quotes, and if you use one of them, you might get [people saying,] ‘Oh you got that from Twitter.’” That’s not the only problem: There’s the issue of misattributed quips or achievements. “You wouldn’t believe how many quotes are bulls***,” the official said with a laugh. “You have a great quote, you ask the researchers to check it out, they’ll come back and say ‘yeah, this isn’t real.’”

The research for the statement about Leonard Nimoy began when the president told chief speechwriter Cody Keenan “I loved Spock” during an Oval Office chat. That comment ended up in the final statement.

“We found a L.A. Times article saying that POTUS and Nimoy met at a fundraiser in 2007, and POTUS shot him a Vulcan salute — so that’s where we got that,” the anonymous senior official said. “I knew that POTUS had been a fan of the TV show when he was younger — and we had a little fun sub-tweeting the columnists who always criticized POTUS for being ‘Spock-like’ and ‘too logical.’ So that’s where the whole ‘big-eared, cool, logical, …. I loved Spock’ came from.”

Aides also learned that actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura in the original “Star Trek,” had once come to the Oval Office and taken a picture with Obama in which they flashed Spock’s Vulcan salute “while she was wearing a Starfleet necklace, which was amazing,” the official said. “Fun fact we learned from obits: Nimoy directed ‘Three Men and a Baby.’ Who knew?”

When it came to Jake Brewer, the White House speechwriters learned of his loss from fellow Obama aides.

“The staff who worked most closely with him were just devastated, and already working on their own statement to put out in [U.S. Chief Technology Officer] Megan Smith’s name when we suggested a POTUS statement,” the official recalled. Obama had already done two other statements about aides after their deaths: White House aide Brandon Lepow and Obama reelection campaign staffer Alex Okrent. In the end, one of Keenan’s writers, a friend of Brewer’s, took the lead with help from Brewer’s colleagues, “then we ran it by POTUS.”

Muhammad Ali’s death earlier this year yielded one of the most interesting and complex condolence statements. The White House learned from the boxing icon’s family that he had been taken off life support, and spent that Friday night working on a presidential message. Keenan’s team includes a former sportswriter, Tyler Lechtenberg, who did the research and banged out a first draft. The two speechwriters got together to edit around 9 p.m. at the White House, then sent their work to Obama.

“On Ali, he asked us to make the point that, like the rest of us, Ali wasn’t perfect — he made mistakes, he learned from them and grew, and that, too, contributed to his greatness,” a senior official told Yahoo News.

That sentiment was reflected in the final statement, from both the president and the first lady. They said in part: “For all his magic in the ring, he could be careless with his words, and full of contradictions as his faith evolved. But his wonderful, infectious, even innocent spirit ultimately won him more fans than foes — maybe because in him, we hoped to see something of ourselves.”

Aides who work on these statements try to make people smile. The first line of the Ali statement was, “Muhammad Ali was The Greatest. Period. If you just asked him, he’d tell you. He’d tell you he was the double greatest; that he’d ‘handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder into jail.” The last line in the tribute to film director Harold Ramis gave a nod to fans “who hope that he received total consciousness,” a reference to “Caddyshack.” The statements also strive to say something original, shunning the most cited quotes on Twitter. “Anybody can pay tribute, but the president should try to take it a little higher when he can,” the anonymous senior official said.

That spirit of fun can get a White House communicator in trouble.

In January 2007, Perino jokingly drafted a fake presidential condolence statement for the racehorse Barbaro, going so far as to send it to the staff secretary who typically signed off on such messages. The staff secretary did not get the joke. “I thought the staff secretary was going to shoot me,” she recalled.

What would a presidential statement about Barbaro have said?

“I wrote about how he embodied the American spirit of never giving up,” Perino said. “And he inspired us all to do our very best.”