DENVER | On the eve of a speech that would forever reshape views on race in America, speechwriters huddled in a D.C. hotel and drafted seven crucial paragraphs.
The moment came not Wednesday night as Sen. Barack Obama prepared to accept his formal spot as the first black presidential nominee, but as Martin Luther King drafted his “I Have a Dream” speech to be delivered Aug. 28, 1963.
“The symbolism is very, very powerful,” said Clarence B. Jones, who served as a speechwriter and counsel to King. “Obama’s candidacy represents a transition across the bridge from the 20th-century legacy of segregation and institutional racism to a 21st-century society of color irrelevancy and multiracial constituencies.”
The historic anniversary provides mile-high expectations for Mr. Obama and his team of speechwriters, who are keenly aware of the date and his quest to become the nation’s first black president.
Jon Favreau and Ben Rhodes - both under the age of 31 - head a team of speechwriters who have helped draft the addresses that played a large role in propelling Mr. Obama from long shot to nominee.
But when it comes to the big blockbusters - his speech Thursday, his convention address four years ago in Boston, his recent address in Berlin - Mr. Obama serves as his own chief writer.
“I can’t claim that I now write all of my own speeches, but the important ones, like 2004, I wrote,” Mr. Obama told a crowd in Northern Virginia this summer.
The author of two best-selling books, Mr. Obama spent all week fine-tuning the Thursday speech.
Mr. Jones, now a professor at the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, remembers the evening 45 years ago as if it were yesterday.
Some time around 7 p.m., he sat with King at the Willard Hotel for a brainstorming session.
“I did a draft of themes. Little did I know the first seven paragraphs he actually adopted without change from what I had drafted,” Mr. Jones told The Washington Times in an interview.
He laughed, remembering that those paragraphs were among the few to survive.
“I watched as he looked out at the 250,000 or so people there and he grabbed both sides of the podium and turned the speech face down,” Mr. Jones said. “When I saw him do that, I turned to the person next to me and said, ‘These people here today don’t know, but they’re about ready to go to church.’”
Mr. Jones lauded King’s vision of an America where his four children would be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
“He had the audacity of actually dreaming in 1963 of an America that, however the process would occur, would someday be able to rise above,” he said.
In addition to Mr. Obama’s heavy personal stamp, his speechwriters were offering an assist.
Mr. Favreau’s touch on the Obama concession speech in the New Hampshire primary in January inspired hip-hop singer will.i.am to create “Yes We Can,” a music video that became a YouTube sensation and mobilized young voters behind the Illinois Democrat. The video later won a Grammy award.
Mr. Favreau, who worked for 2004 Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry, has made his former boss “proud as hell.”
“He went from intern to superstar in the span of four years,” Mr. Kerry told The Times via e-mail. “He’s humble and quiet and committed and he just puts his head down and writes with passion. He’s talented, but he’s also got character, and that’s why his writing is so powerful.”
Mr. Rhodes was a key writer of the 9/11 commission report. He also briefly worked on policy speeches for former Democratic Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who flirted with a presidential bid but is now running for an open Senate seat.
“I’m the first to acknowledge I’m not a gifted natural orator,” Mr. Warner said.
“Ben has enormous, enormous talent. He listens,” he said. “Sometimes speechwriters, they want to come in and put their stamp. He listens and really helped me as I tried to take ideas and say them clearer and cleaner.
“Senator Obama is very lucky to have him. He’s one of the real rising talents on the policy message side,” Mr. Warner added.
Mr. Rhodes’ favorite quotation comes from John F. Kennedy: “Our problems are man-made; therefore, they can be solved by man.”
The Obama speech is likely to pay homage to King, who, as Mr. Jones put it, “understood political reality” four decades ago, and was not speaking to black citizens but rather to the country’s white majority to whom he felt he must appeal.
“We hoped to get our message across to the majority of the majority,” he said. “We wanted them to know our goals for the elimination of racism and segregation, for equal opportunity and justice for everyone, were really in their self-interest.”
Mr. Jones also acknowledged the historic nature of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s candidacy, although she came up short against Mr. Obama.
“It’s fair to say that the candidacies of Clinton or Obama would not have been possible really without the transformative effect of Doctor King’s legacy of dismantling racism and sexism,” he said.
Mr. Jones added that white voters in states such as Kansas, North Dakota and Iowa chose Mr. Obama because of a “core thirst” to move on to “something that’s better.”
Mr. Jones, 77, said his grandchildren have a profoundly different view of race.
“Color is virtually irrelevant to them,” he said.