Barack Obama, June 16, 2006
|Bill Burke-White (left), faculty member on leave and Olivier Kamanda L'09 take short break from the grueling pace at the State Department. Burke-White is on the policy planning staff and Kamanda is a speechwriter for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.|
A few weeks into his job, Olivier Kamanda L'09 received a sweat-inducing summons to go over his remarks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
He had been so worried about this that he slept — if you call five minutes of fitful rest sleep — with two Blackberrys beside his head all night. Hearing nothing, he took a shower in the morning. After toweling off he found, to his dismay, a blizzard of 10 e-mails with the same urgent message: the secretary wants to see you in 20 minutes. Kamanda dressed in a hurry and bounded to his car, zooming through the streets of Washington as the worst thunderstorm of the summer released gales of rain.
Drenched, he arrived at the State Department and was ushered past the ceremonial room where heads of state are feted and treaties are announced; past the security guards and into the secretary's quarters — only to wait another 20 minutes or so.
Finally, a door opened and Kamanda entered the secretary's office. Whereupon he went blank. "I didn't actually hear a word she said, so I'm really happy that she wrote it (her comments) down, because for the entire time I thought ‘I can't believe Hillary Clinton is talking now.' "
Such is the life of a speechwriter, a new speechwriter in a new administration getting its sea legs after an historic election.
"The job is definitely very challenging," says the 28-year-old Kamanda, who started the job last August. "It requires a lot of focus and mental capacity."
Kamanda is the ultimate generalist. So he needs to know enough about nonproliferation, public health, public service, national security, and Afghanistan, for starters, to write compelling and knowledgeable remarks that both lay out American policy and square with Sec. Clinton's vision. To meet that challenge, he pores over policy papers and contacts experts in time zones all around the world, searching for the nugget of information he needs during a five- to ten- minute phone call.
Fortunately, he's steeped in foreign policy. In his third year at Penn Law School, Kamanda created an online magazine named Foreign Policy Digest. The magazine, from which he's taken a leave, aims to simplify complex topics like nuclear proliferation and international trade for a young readership.
His command of the issues, as well as his volunteer work for the Obama campaign, led to the job offer. During the primaries, Kamanda knocked on doors in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He expanded his role in the general election, nabbing a staff position as a member of the Defense Policy Committee and working on the Get Out the Vote operation in Southwest Philadelphia.
Although he's a speechwriter, Kamanda is almost at a loss for words when contemplating the opportunity he's been given at the State Department, which he calls "the most powerful think tank in the world."
"It's sort of a dream," he says. "To some extent, I wake up every morning and feel I have no idea what I'm doing. I think a lot of people who start out (in government) probably feel that. It is an awesome responsibility."