PHILADELPHIA >> If any single image best represents the new hour-long documentary “The Obama Years,” it would probably be the close-up shot of a speech Barack Obama delivered to Congress in 2009.
Peering over his shoulder, the camera glimpses sheets of paper teeming with the president’s own ball-point edits. Handwritten notes in the margins. Sentences crossed out. Rewrites on top of rewrites.
It’s a peek into the fastidious mind of the 44th president of the United States, a leader who well understood the strength of the written word.
Through interviews with Smithsonian historians, as well as some of the president’s most trusted speechwriters, “The Obama Years,” which premieres on the Smithsonian Channel Monday, Feb. 27, examines the role that words will play in shaping Obama’s legacy.
During a screening of the film at the African American Museum in Center City Feb. 15, Chris Hoelzel, senior vice president of research and development at the Smithsonian Channel, explained, “This is not a definitive account” of Obama’s presidency.
Looking outside of party and politics, outside of the actions of his office, “The Obama Years” instead focuses on six speeches delivered before and during Obama’s terms.
Among the six are addresses given at the 2004 and 2008 Democratic National Conventions, as well as a speech delivered in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut in 2012.
To hear it from those interviewed for the film, one of the hallmarks of Barack Obama’s work as a writer and an orator is his ability to connect with people on deeply personal and emotional levels, to touch the hearts of individuals while addressing millions.
This is demonstrated several times throughout “The Obama Years,” but in no segment is it truer or more powerful than in the now-famous “Selma speech” of March 2015.
50 years after the “Bloody Sunday” march on Selma, Ala., Obama, flanked by US Rep. John Lewis and former president George W. Bush, spoke directly to the next generation of Americans.
He said, “That’s what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day: you are America, unconstrained by habit and convention, unencumbered by what is, because you’re ready to seize what ought to be. Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’ We the people. We shall overcome. Yes we can. That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone.”
In an interview for the film, former chief speechwriter for Obama, Cody Keenan, said, “If there is one speech that school kids are forced to read one day, I would like it to be Selma.”
Similar to presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, whose many speeches now hold place in the annals of history, Obama was very much involved in the speech-writing process. He was meticulous, thorough and patient, weighing out every word.
“If there were 48 hours in a day, I think [Obama would] probably dispense with his speech-writing team and do it himself,” Keenan says in the film.
On Obama’s unique and careful approach to writing, Jon Favreau, another former chief speechwriter, says, “He did away with a lot of the cliches and applause lines that politicians always gravitate to.”
After the screening at the African American Museum in mid-February, guest speakers Barbara Savage of the University of Pennsylvania and Errin Whack of the Associated Press held a question-and-answer session. The audience was welcomed to ask whatever came to mind.
But there were few questions at all. Mostly, people just stood up and heaped praise upon Obama. Some people were close to tears.
Whack, with a nod to the crowd’s enthusiasm, said, “What this film reflects and captures is, these [presidents] don’t come along too often. ... Give me a Calvin Coolidge quote and I’ll give you $20 right now.”
“The Obama Years: The Power of Words” will premiere on Monday, Feb. 27 at 8 p.m. on the Smithsonian Channel.