1. You’ve done a great deal in your life, and you’ve only just turned 30. What keeps your work ethic so strong?
I’ve had a few really lucky breaks. Getting to work for Hillary [Clinton], getting to work for President Obama, getting to write a TV show for NBC – these were very lucky breaks where I happened to be at the right place, at the right time. Other than that, it was two things: one, trying to be really honest about how much I had to learn and trying to really learn from people around me. … The other part was about knowing when to listen.
2. Is there something you haven’t done yet that you want to do?
I have no idea. I really try not to be a planner. I really try not to think too far ahead. I try to take things as they come. When you think of your life as a series of career choices, I think that’s a mistake. I think it’s much better to take the opportunities as they come … and also be ready to take a chance.
3. What do you think is the most valuable thing you’ve ever done?
I’m really proud of the number of speeches I had the chance to work on in the White House. There were moments where I had the chance to help influence important decisions, that being a speechwriter gave me the chance to make an argument that I’m really proud of. That experience – working at the White House – there’s nothing quite like it. There’s no experience like seeing the president deliver a set of remarks that you helped write and that you’re really proud of. Those were the times I felt like I made a real contribution.
4. What does the First Amendment mean to you personally?
It’s our great defense. It’s our great protection. There are a lot of places that don’t have that. They do have the right to elect their leaders, but they don’t have the same set of protections that we do. The First Amendment is our defender against the people who tell us that our ideas aren’t worth hearing, that our ideas are dangerous or that our religion is dangerous or that what we’re saying about power is dangerous. There have always been times in which really good ideas are considered unacceptable, but we’ve been protected by the fact that we have this amendment that says it doesn’t matter what everybody thinks.
5. What’s your reaction when people protest “First Amendment!” in cases that aren’t governmental, like when “Duck Dynasty”star Phil Robertson was suspended for homophobic comments in a GQ profile?
When people say, ‘Oh, they’re violating First Amendment rights,’ but it’s obviously not a First Amendment issue, it’s an inarticulate way of saying that they don’t like somebody being told not to say something. So obviously, that’s incorrect. There was no actual First Amendment issue in play. … But it is actually an important point. It’s obviously a point being made incorrectly, but it’s a really important point, that the freedom of speech doesn’t begin and end with the government. … In this particular case, what he said was pretty terrible. I understand both sides, and it obviously wasn’t a First Amendment issue. But that conversation playing out, of people having the right to say terrible things, at the same time, a conversation about what you’re saying is unacceptable is sort of how the culture changes. It’s how we decide how we change as a culture. … That’s a good thing.
6. You’ve spoken multiple times about bulls--- in our culture. What makes this subject particularly compelling to you?
The culture is nothing new. I think it’s been around for a long time. We’re in this position where it’s almost like it’s been weaponized. Politicians have gotten very good at using that to figure out how to craft their message. Advertising companies have gotten very good at pushing the buttons of consumers. … Also, the Internet and social media and all the different ways we absorb the entertainment information now means that not only have companies gotten better at it, they’ve also gotten everywhere. An advertisement is no longer the back of the paper. It’s on your phone, it’s in your life – we’re surrounded by it. … I just think it’s an interesting time for people to try to tell the truth.
7. You’re really an active Twitter user – do you think having such a public, immediate forum for using our First Amendment right helps the cultural dialogue?
Yes, I do. I think Twitter has a downside. I think thoughts that come quickly aren’t always the best ones. We’ve all said things in conversation that we regret. Twitter is a way of saying things immediately, and that of course has some risk to it. At the same time, I think Twitter has been an incredibly positive force. It’s done really great things for people that didn’t previously have a voice, or a way of connecting with powerful interests that controlled newspapers and TV stations. They have a voice now, and they can reach those people. When there’s an important story, we don’t just read it now – we share it. And that sharing is powerful. People now can argue and debate with each other and make their best case … and, look, obviously, it’s a mess. It’s a big mess. But I think that conversation is really good. A lot of people make fun of Twitter and make fun of social media and say that it’s a bad influence on culture. But it’s amazing how often that comes from people that already have a platform, a way to reach out to people. … There are people who don’t have that. They have a chance to be part of that conversation. I think that it’s without a doubt, even with some negatives, a much better think for the culture.
8. With the 2014 Winter Olympic Games having just started in Sochi, where freedom of speech is not only unprotected, but is also particularly threatened, do you feel like this is a good time to be reflecting on our First Amendment rights?
There’s never a bad time to do that. I think you look at what’s happening, and you see journalistic institutions being shut down in Russia, and then you see all this corruption in the Olympics, and you see the crackdown on people, and you think, well, the freedom of speech is a great protector against corruption. And when you get rid of it, you very often find yourself not just in a country where people don’t have the right to speak – you find yourself in a country that’s fallen apart because there’s nobody holding the government accountable. We’re so lucky that we have this incredible tool of protecting ourselves and keeping our country on the right path.