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Sarah K. Hurwitz ’99, Former Head Speechwriter for Michelle Obama, Looks Back On College and Career

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Michelle Obama’s former head speechwriter Sarah K. Hurwitz ’99 found her love for politics at Harvard.

“The more amazing people I saw there — so many public servants who were decent and patriotic and passionate about serving their country — the more I knew I wanted to be part of that,” Hurwitz wrote in an emailed statement.

A former Quincy resident, Hurwitz concentrated in Social Studies as an undergraduate and participated in an afterschool program at the Phillips Brooks House Association and the Undergraduate Council — the previous iteration of Harvard’s student government which was dissolved and replaced by the Harvard Undergraduate Association in 2022.

Dara Horn ’99, Hurwitz’s longtime friend, said she remembers being “inspired” and “stunned” by Hurwitz when they first met in the First-Year Arts Program, one of six orientation programs hosted the week before classes begin in the fall for incoming freshmen.

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“She was never interested in sucking up to people. She always was interested in ‘Let’s get down to the real problems here. Let’s cut right to the chase,’” Horn said. “She’s got this sort of assertiveness to her. It’s a problem solving attitude.”

It was that love for politics that drew her to work for Vice President Al Gore ’69 during the summer after her junior year. After initially working on the scheduling and advance team, Hurwitz found her way into speechwriting after she “basically begged” one of Gore’s speechwriters to intern for him.

The foray into a new field didn’t immediately end well. After interning for Nussbaum, Hurwitz later worked for former Senator Thomas R. Harkin, before she was told by Harkin’s chief of staff that she should go to law school — “like ideally right away.”

“I was totally devastated by this – I felt like such a failure,” she wrote.

But after returning to Harvard as a law student she met Joshua S. Gottheimer, who she wrote taught her how to structure a speech and “how you write to be heard, not read — two very different skills.” Gottheimer is now a Democratic congressman from New Jersey.

The two got a job working for Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination in 2004, before moving to work for John F. Kerry, who would lose the general election to George W. Bush.

When the next election cycle began, Hurwitz was working as a lawyer in D.C. before Gottheimer encouraged her to work for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. Clinton would lose the nomination to Barack Obama, whose chief speechwriter Jon E. Favreau knew Hurwitz from the Kerry campaign. Favreau hired her.

Obama’s victory, which Hurwitz wrote was “a new and exciting experience for me,” led her to the White House, where she stayed for the entirety of the Obama administration.

During Obama’s campaign, Hurwitz assisted Michelle Obama with her speech for the 2008 Democratic Convention, and “really hit it off with her,” occasionally helping her with speeches while writing for the former president.

“Eventually, I realized that I actually felt more at home in Mrs. Obama’s voice and was more interested in the issues she was speaking about,” Hurwitz wrote. “In a very unusual White House career move, I decided to go from writing for him to being head speechwriter for her.”

Hurwitz wrote she “absolutely” hates it when she receives comments like “‘putting words in Michelle Obama’s mouth.’”

“The idea that anyone would put words in her mouth is absurd,” Hurwitz wrote. “The vast majority of the time you've ever seen her, she isn’t giving a speech. And what you see — her intelligence, compassion, devotion to the causes she cares about — that’s her. The job of a speechwriter is to do their best to channel it.”

“I want to be clear that I did not come up with the line ‘When they go low, we go high.’ Mrs. Obama came up with that line – all I did was type it into the speech,” she wrote.

When the Obamas left the White House in 2017, Hurwitz left speechwriting.

In what she calls her “current life,” Hurwitz says she “is focused largely on speaking about and writing books about Judaism” after reconnecting with the faith as an adult, something she said she found “incredibly challenging.” She published a book on the topic in 2019.

She returned to Harvard in the spring 0f 2017 as a study group fellow at the IOP, where her sessions were attended by Amanda S.C. Gorman ’20, who garnered fame as the youngest U.S. Poet Laureate and for her poem at Joe Biden’s 2021 presidential inauguration.

Michael Kikukawa ’17, who was Hurwitz’s student chief of staff at the IOP, said he joined Hurwitz’s group because he thought Hurwitz could share her experience about working in government as he was reevaluating his own career path in politics.

“She herself is a model of a thoughtful leader and mentor,” he said. “What really set the tone for me was our time as liaisons was her ability to see things in real terms. She didn’t glorify working at the White House — how long the hours were, how grueling it was.”

“It is remarkable to think of myself following in her footsteps,” added Kikukawa, who is currently an assistant press secretary for the White House.

Hurwitz wrote she owes a lot of her current life — where she travels “to talk to people about my Jewish and political journeys and share the breathtaking wisdom I’ve found in Jewish tradition” — to Harvard.

“I cannot begin to articulate how grateful I feel for the life I have today – a life made possible in large part by my time at Harvard, by the education I got and the people I met,” she wrote.

—Staff writer Jina H. Choe can be reached at jina.choe@thecrimson.com.

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