Vows: For Obama’s Speechwriting Team, the Message Finally Got Through

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Vows: For Obama’s Speechwriting Team, the Message Finally Got Through

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Vows

By SARAH WILDMAN

When Kristen Bartoloni came on board as a researcher on the White House communications team in 2011, there was one rule she was intent on following: Don’t mix dating and work.

“I didn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea of why I was there,” she said.

But she hadn’t anticipated meeting the very persistent Cody Keenan, a speechwriter whom President Obama nicknamed “Hemingway.” Still, she adhered to her self-set rule through three attempts by Mr. Keenan to get her to go out with him.

Mr. Keenan, who had begun working for Barack Obama in the early stages of his 2008 campaign for the presidency, was smitten from the moment Ms. Bartoloni popped her head into his office to say hello.

“We met literally on her first day of work,” said Mr. Keenan, 35. “I have it in my calendar: June 27, 2011. It was midday or late morning. We worked in offices next door to each other. And her boss brought her around, and there was a knock on my door, and I noticed how pretty she was. I remember saying, ‘Wow.’”

Researchers like Ms. Bartoloni are the speechwriters’ safety net, poring over every word, parsing every sentence, challenging every assertion — striving to ensure everything the president says is correct.

As such, Ms. Bartoloni and Mr. Keenan began working together very closely. “She is paid to tell me I’m wrong,” he said, laughing.

She noticed that he was particularly witty in his email, and they quickly developed a warm rapport.

“We took email conversations to our personal email and started talking there, about random stuff. What are you doing this weekend? Not anything monumental,” said Ms. Bartoloni, 30.

Also serving as an incubator for lifelong attachments was the hothouse atmosphere of the White House.

“The nature of these jobs is you spend more time with each other than with your families,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communication and Mr. Keenan’s close friend.

Presidential speechwriting means working long hours, and fact-checking those speeches means Ms. Bartoloni’s work continues into the wee hours after the speechwriter completes the work.

It was quickly clear to those in the West Wing that Ms. Bartoloni and Mr. Keenan were of similar temperaments. She, too, seemed to always be willing to work harder and stay later.

An assistant to Mr. Rhodes at the time, Ferial Govashiri, noticed Ms. Bartoloni and suggested to Mr. Rhodes that she would be a perfect match for Mr. Keenan.

The differences between the speechwriter and the fact-checker also seemed to add to their attraction.

Katie Munroe, who went to American University with Ms. Bartoloni and now works for a law firm, said, “She has a very magnetic personality, and is such a happy, positive person that people like Cody, who can be pretty serious, are drawn to her.”

In early October 2011 Mr. Keenan challenged Ms. Bartoloni to a bet. She had questioned a sports reference in one of his speeches. If he was correct, he explained, she would go out for drinks with him; if he was wrong, he would go out for drinks with her.

She was proved right, but she decided against collecting. She didn’t believe that dating in the West Wing was a great idea, especially for women. He dropped that line of inquiry, for a time.

On Halloween they went to a mutual friend’s birthday party. Ms. Bartoloni was dressed as the N.B.A. lockout in a Knicks jersey with a big lock around her neck. Mr. Keenan thought she was particularly attractive that night and was emboldened to ask her out one more time.

He wasn’t terribly worried about mixing work and play. He had had a number of relationships with no such conflict, but they had not worked out so well.

“I was aware of the hazards, but also willing to risk them for her,” he said. “I was nervous. I had already asked her out once in kind of a ‘no big deal’ way, but this was the first time, I think, that I had the courage to make a serious request.”

So: Would she be willing to join him for a drink sometime?

Again the answer was no, and she clearly explained to him her rule on work and dating.

Though she believed it was the right choice, she had become a bit wistful about it. They did have great fun together, and she worried that the easy interplay between them might shut down. It didn’t. “He was still the nice, kind person he was when we first started talking,” she said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, got to know Ms. Bartoloni better during a presidential trip to Indonesia and Australia, when they worked in concert for several days. Upon their return, Mr. Rhodes told Mr. Keenan that his assistant’s hunch had been exactly right: Ms. Bartoloni was perfect for him.

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Mr. Keenan admitted that he had already asked her out twice without success.

Yet on Dec. 1 of that year, when Mr. Keenan again asked Ms. Bartoloni, the “no” was uttered a little more regretfully.

“The third time, we were at a co-worker’s birthday party at a place called Hill Country Barbecue,” Mr. Keenan said. For Mr. Keenan, a huge Chicago Cubs fan, three strikes were enough.

But Ms. Bartoloni had begun having serious second thoughts. As Christmas neared, she kept thinking about him. She didn’t want an office fling, but she wondered if the rapport between them may extend beyond Pennsylvania Avenue.

“It kept nagging on me after I said no at Hill Country that I was making a mistake,” she said. She talked it over with friends, who all had the same opinion. “They said, ‘You’re being ridiculous,’” she said. “‘He’s great. He’s better to you than your ex-boyfriends were.’”

So, during an email exchange with Mr. Keenan the day after the third no, she spared him the need for a fourth time and said yes, she would go out with him.

“When I emailed the next morning, and he responded with a joke, I just decided to go for it, kind of impulsively,” she said. “I wasn’t 100 percent at that point, but I was sure it wasn’t going to be a short-lived fling.”

That week, she invited her friend Julianna Acos to a White House Christmas party, partly so she could offer a second opinion on Mr. Keenan. “She wanted me to vet him,” said Ms. Acos, who gave her seal of approval. “He was amazing: so affable, so friendly.”

Ms. Bartoloni agreed to meet Mr. Keenan at a bar in her neighborhood, but she showed up two hours late. That wasn’t a problem, though: Mr. Keenan understood how hard it can be to get away from the White House pressure cooker.

When Ms. Bartoloni finally arrived, she dug into a grilled cheese sandwich. The two talked until the bar closed at 2 a.m.

That became a trend: Every time they went out, the conversation was nonstop. They were always the last to leave.

On their second date, standing outside an Irish bar in Washington’s Chinatown, Mr. Keenan hailed a cab. As the taxi pulled up, she turned toward him, tugged on his lapels and kissed him.

For a while, though, she wanted to keep the relationship from her colleagues (though she informed her boss), but it’s hard to keep that sort of thing secret at the White House for long. (Mr. Rhodes said everyone knew pretty quickly but pretended otherwise.)

In February of 2012 Mr. Keenan surprised Ms. Bartoloni with Knicks tickets (she’s a lifelong fan). In June she took him to a cousin’s First Communion in Staten Island and introduced him to her extended Italian-American family.

Among those on hand was Matt Bartoloni, Ms. Bartoloni’s brother, who recalled that his sister had always been passionate about what she believed in. She had championed gender equality, for example, since elementary school. “I remember she wrote a letter to the N.B.A. commissioner saying there should be a league for women,” Mr. Bartoloni said.

Indeed, if there are characters from the TV show “The West Wing” that match Ms. Bartoloni and Mr. Keenan, it may be the self-assured Amy and the almost-too-smart Josh.

Mr. Keenan started saving for a ring in 2013. “I just kind of knew all along,” he said.

Mr. Keenan’s proposed to Ms. Bartoloni atop Rockefeller Center in June 2015. He had to resort to a ruse to get her to Manhattan (she loves her work and hates leaving Washington, he said). So he told her that he had received an invitation to the finale of the “Saturday Night Live” season. (Cecily Strong, the S.N.L. cast member who hosted the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, agreed to send him an invitation.)

Briefed on Mr. Keenan’s proposal plan, President Obama had only one piece of advice: an umbrella. (And it did rain that night.)

Afterward, he took her to the Campbell Apartment at Grand Central Terminal, where her family and friends were waiting at a surprise engagement party. “I knew she’d want to call her mom and cousin, and instead I had them all in one place,” he said.

On July 3, the couple married at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. As guests filed out in a light drizzle, the couple slipped away to the White House, where they met the president for a congratulatory hug and photo.

That evening Mr. Keenan, who now is chief speechwriter, and Ms. Bartoloni, now deputy director of research and rapid-response adviser, gathered with guests at a reception at Bluejacket brewery near Nationals Park.

A few days before the wedding, Mr. Keenan said of his bride: “She’s made me a better listener. I like to think I’m a better person knowing her.”

He said that they had never known life together outside the White House, but that they would both be unemployed the same day come January.

They plan to take off for two months and travel, being free for the very first time to turn off their cellphones and turn, exclusively, toward each other.

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