The importance of work ethic and using his political science degree in the Capitol
Before Cody Keenan (WCAS ’02) became President Barack Obama’s Director of Speechwriting,
he was living in a six-person apartment in the District of Columbia, a city where he says “no one
is impressed by a political science degree”. From turning around new speeches daily on the
campaign trail to collaborating on President Obama’s recently released book, Keenan has been
speechwriting for over a decade. As winter and spring graduates prepare for
post-undergraduate life, Keenan discussed his own career path and shared advice for those
seeking a career in politics. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: Remind me how you started out in politics after graduating from Northwestern.
Cody Keenan: Getting that first job in politics and in Washington is really, really difficult.
Basically, I just moved to Washington after college and had no idea how to get a job. I ultimately
went to a bunch of interviews and flamed out of them. Turns out, a political science degree does
not prepare you for that stuff. Finally, I saw an opening for an internship in Ted Kennedy's office
and I just pestered his office with a resume and phone calls until they hired me to be an intern
for no pay. I started out in his mailroom, reading letters, routing them to the right place. And it
was cool. I mean, it was the gruntiest of grunt work for free — you're also getting people
sandwiches and running errands, but it teaches you a lot about this stuff and why it matters.
When you're getting a political science degree, you're thinking theoretically. Suddenly, you're
reading these letters from people who desperately need help, whether it's with getting their
veterans benefits or student loans or a piece of legislation that would benefit their lives, and it's
really eye-opening. So long story short, I ended up working in his office for almost four years. I
got hired to be a staff assistant out front for $18,000 a year, answering phones, giving
constituent tours, basically assisting the staff.
That first job is really the most important one. Your first job is not going to be your best
job so don't freak out if it's not the job of your dreams because it's not going to be — but
it is your most important learning experience. For me, it was everything about the way the
Hill works, but also how interpersonal relationships work and how issues work, and how
legislation really works. If you just keep your eyes open, and, in addition to normal
responsibilities, read everything you can and follow what's going on, you’ll learn a lot.
Q: You mentioned you're not "hot sh*t" because most everyone else in DC has a political
science degree and went to a great school. So what did you do to make yourself stand out?
CK: If you want to separate yourself, what people want to see — and again, this is just on the
Hill, but I think it's true anywhere — is basic competence. Are you smart, willing to do anything,
and a quick learner? And at minimum, it means just doing every task you're asked with a smile
on your face. If someone's asking you to make copies, you don't have time to think to yourself,
"Well, I went to the ninth-best school in America". You're not like, "No, I went to Northwestern, I
don't make copies" — that's bullsh*t. If someone asks you to make copies, you make the
best copies they've ever seen, you collate them. If the toner is running low, you put in a
new one and you staple them, and you get them everywhere as quickly as possible. You
try to anticipate people's needs. It's not ass-kissing, it's just proving that you can do what you're
asked to do without being a jerk about it.
My simple rules are work hard, don't be an asshole, and keep in touch with people — and that's
what brought me as far as I have come. If you work your butt off, people can tell. If you're the
last one there at night, people know; people notice these things.
Q: You mentioned that a political science degree can't really prepare you for the work you
ended up doing. But what about your education from Northwestern did prepare you, ultimately,
for the career you've had?
CK: I have no regrets about my Northwestern education. I'm intensely proud of it and I'd go all
over again. I'm not trying to diminish the political science department because I think having an
underpinning of how government works, how lobbying works, how other political systems work,
and more — all that is vital. Statistics for political analysis, for example, while it was one of my
least favorite classes at the time, ended up proving very useful. As a speechwriter, you have to
read polls all the time. You have to understand how to take polling data and make a better
argument out of it. That's really the next level. And all those things are really important. All the
research and theory that comes out of political science can help us learn to govern ourselves
even better — and what could be more important than that right now?
Obviously, the course I took on the presidency was my favorite and that ended up coming in
handy. But it was the fact that I had to take so many other courses in so many other different
parts of the university that really made it worthwhile. I'll always fight with anybody who tries to
demean a liberal arts education — I loved it. I didn't go in as a polisci major, I went in pre-med.
Chemistry weeded me out of that track because I hated chemistry. It was the fact that as a
pre-med major, and I don't know if it's still the same or not, I had to take a certain number of
other courses from the College of Arts and Sciences. And I realized that I used all six of those
classes on political science classes so clearly there's something here. Northwestern helped me
figure out that I actually loved politics and it was going to be my pathway to making a difference.
Interview by James Pollard (WCAS '22)