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Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

Adam P. Frankel ’03

Senior Presidential Speechwriter, The White House

When I look back on my time at Princeton, the courses I think about most fondly are often those that might seem unlikely favorites for a politically minded history buff like me. There was music of the Romantic era, art history, and the humanities sequence, the single most rewarding course I took during my entire four years. 

But the truth is, when it came to where I was going to major, where I was going to root myself in a university with so many exciting possibilities, I never had any doubt it would be in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, so long as the school was willing to take me.

I grew up with a deep interest in international affairs. My mother, who was in academia for much of her career, would take me on trips not only to Western Europe, but Turkey and Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. It gave me a deep interest early on in the cultures and affairs of other countries, a sense of the bigness and diversity of our world. 

So, when I arrived at Princeton, despite my love of history and passion for politics, there was no other department that appealed to me. No other department seemed as exciting as the one that let us try our hands at the same policy problems confounding leaders around the world; brought us face to face with lawmakers and diplomats; and let us hone and practice the skills I imagined I’d one day use in government.

Space to pursue passions

Of course, there are any number of majors you can choose as a preparation for a career in public service. But the Woodrow Wilson School ended up being the perfect match for me. During my sophomore summer, a classmate’s father, hearing I didn’t have plans, said he needed someone to travel to southern Africa and set up a network of young AIDS activists, and asked if I wanted to be the one to do it. 

What happens when you confront a crisis like AIDS where people are suffering and dying without access to the support they need, often in places where political leaders choose to ignore—rather than help—them is that it changes you. I couldn’t return home and go back to normal. I had to get more involved. 

By the time I was a senior, I’d done a lot more traveling and a lot more activism, and wanted to make HIV/AIDS the subject of my thesis. The thesis I wrote—part history of America’s response to the global pandemic; part analysis of our current AIDS policy; part prescription for what we should do going forward—was the kind of interdisciplinary thesis I could have written only in the Woodrow Wilson School. It gave me the intellectual space to pursue my passions wherever they took me.

Path to the White House

After graduating from Princeton in 2003, and spending a summer in the counterterrorism office at the State Department, I headed off on a Fulbright to study international relations at the London School of Economics. Midway through the program, unable to bear a presidential election taking place without me, I put my studies on hold and joined John Kerry’s presidential campaign as a junior speechwriter. 

There, I became friends with Jon Favreau who took a job, when Kerry lost, with a newly elected senator from Illinois. When that senator decided to run for president, Jon asked if I wanted to move to Chicago and help him. That was in March 2007. I’ve been writing speeches for President Barack Obama ever since. 

We don’t have formal portfolios, but I’ve written a number of major policy speeches on a range of different issues—from education to health care. And on each of them, when I sit down to talk through a set of policies, and make sure I understand them well enough to explain in a speech what they mean and why they’re important, I know I’m putting into practice many of the skills I learned in Robertson bowls, applied in junior task forces, and honed in my thesis as a Woodrow Wilson School major. I know the Woodrow Wilson School—and Princeton—served me well.

Frankel-Adam
  • Official White House photo by Pete Souza