White House speechwriter turned screenwriter delivers keynote address for LMU’s First Amendment Week

By Gary Walker

To paraphrase former White House speechwriter Jon Lovett, the constitutional right to free speech may protect praiseworthy and contemptible words alike, but it also means someone can call you out for being an obnoxious jerk.

Lovett, who spent three years writing speeches for President Barack Obama before heading to Hollywood to try his luck at screenwriting, delivered a battle-tested take on the topic during a Feb. 11 address at Loyola Marymount University as part of the school’s 12th annual First Amendment Week celebration.

At 31, Lovett is the youngest First Amendment Week keynote speaker to date, adding to a roster that has included Karl Rove, Bill Maher, Seth MacFarlane, Arianna Huffington, Ann Coulter and James Carville.

Weaving humor with Washington D.C. anecdotes, Lovett — who wrote and produced “1600 Penn,” a television series set inside the White House that ran for 13 episodes in 2012 — read from a prepared text at a frenetic pace and jumped from topic to topic in discussing the intersections of free speech issues and political life.

The Internet and social media, Lovett said, have empowered everyday people in the political dialogue, pointing up the events of the Arab Spring. But Lovett also made a counterargument that many online voices seek to misinform.

“I think in many ways the Internet has hurt more that it helps,” he said.

For those facing genuine institutional censorship, digital media outlets “can protect people around the world from government reprisals,” said Lovett. “But in the United States, that doesn’t exist the way it does in other counties. The anonymity of the Internet allows people to express things that they wouldn’t say to people’s faces. It’s a way of hiding.”

Lovett said unpleasant speech, including name-calling and personal attacks, were by no means admirable but cautioned that this type of speech should not be curtailed. But he also said the people in political circles often confuse criticism of impolite speech and embellishments with censorship.

“People think of the First Amendment as all encompassing,” Lovett said. “It’s a little silly, but it’s a genuine reaction to people being told to shut up.”

Tom Nelson, LMU’s director of student media, was impressed with Lovett’s response to a student questions about his career path.

Nelson said Lovett’s response — that he “didn’t say no to anything” when he was looking for work out of college — was crucial for young audience members to hear.

“That was important because many students, in my opinion, are under the impression that there’s some sort of career success template: Six months at an internship, an entry-level job, three years in a junior position and then all of sudden you are inundated with $150,000-a-year job offers,” Nelson said.

“Life doesn’t always work like that. In fact, you could argue that it often doesn’t work like that.

My hope is that it was valuable for students to see a young, successful person like Jon say his plan amounted to him challenging himself to try new things,” Nelson said.

Lovett began his career as an intern with then Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. He moved on to work as a junior communications assistant with then Sen. Jon Corzine, and later as a speechwriter for then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.

“Being a speechwriter was great training [for screenwriting] because you learn to write in someone else’s voice,” Lovett said.

In addition to writing many policy speeches for President Obama, Lovett also wrote many of the jokes Obama would use at dinner events.

“The president took office during a time of great financial chaos and often he had to get to the podium and I had to generate speeches very quickly,” Lovett said. “But they were also my favorite times because they were such important, high-pressure moments.”