Terry Edmonds is the man behind the curtain. A speechwriter for Bill Clinton, Edmonds joined Clinton’s staff in 1995 and worked his way up to director of speechwriting. When Clinton's reign came to an end in 2001, he thought he’d closed the book on politics, but he was lured back to help Kerry with his campaign in 2004. Recently, Edmonds landed a job at Time Warner and made the move to New York.
It took a bit of prodding to get Edmonds to speak, as a ghostwriter you’re supposed to stay in the shadows, but we were persuasive and he finally came around.
Place of birth: Baltimore, MD
Current residence: New York
Length of time in New York: 3 months
Online guilty pleasure: Playing backgammon on Yahoo
You made headlines a few years back for being the first African-American speechwriter in the White House. What was it like to be the first?
When I got the job I didn’t think of myself as the first black speechwriter in the White House. I thought that I had been given an opportunity to do something momentous, important and hopefully fun. After being on the job for a while, getting my feet wet and what have you, it did gradually dawn on me, that, yes, I was the first African-American speechwriter. I don’t think I knew that when I first took the job. It gave me a sense of pride because my family, my community, my church and my friends were very proud of me and I was proud of myself too.
An article in Ebony magazine said, “When Terry Edmonds writes, the whole world listens.” How does that make you feel?
Obviously, very good. That’s an outgrowth of writing for the President of the United States because when the President speaks the whole world listens. I don’t take credit, it’s not me so much as the person that I am writing for. I’ve written for a lot of other obscure people, who, when Terry Edmonds writes, there’s no tree in the forest.
There must have been a lot of pressure writing for the President. How did you sleep?
There is a lot of pressure and a lot of nervousness, but once you get into it, you realize it’s a job that has to be done. It has deadlines, it has a process and you focus on that, otherwise you would be paralyzed by the enormity of what you’re doing.
I remember the first speech I wrote for Clinton, I was somewhat terrified because I’m writing for the President of the United States for the first time, but you know over time you get use to it and it becomes a regular job.
How did you come to speechwriting?
I never aspired to be a speechwriter. When I graduated from college my goal was to go into journalism, but those doors were not open in the early ‘70s when I came out of college. So I veered into public relations as a career choice. As a public relations writer you do a lot of ghost writing; you don’t get a lot of credit for the things you write. So it was kind of a natural training ground for speechwriting.
My first taste of speechwriting was when I worked for Kweisi Mfume, who was then a Maryland Congressman. I worked as his press secretary up on Capitol Hill and I did some writing for him. But my first real full-time speechwriting job came in 1993 when I worked for Donna Shalala, Secretary of Health & Human Services. And after two years of doing that I moved over to the White House as Clinton’s speechwriter.
So, Clinton recruited you?
Yeah kinda. It was the sort of thing where Shalala was in the Clinton Cabinet and everybody knew everybody. Some of her speeches were noticed by people in the White House so I was encouraged to apply for this opening and I did.
What level did you start out at?
When I started working at the White House my first title was special assistant to the president. There were three professional management levels, special assistant to the president, deputy assistant to the president and assistant to the president. Assistant was the highest level and I had all three of those positions during my time.
In 1999, you were named the director of speechwriting. What did that job entail?
As the director of speechwriting I did less original writing and more editing and managing of the message and the other writers. I supervised a staff of 6 full-time domestic policy writers. There was another operation under Sandy Berger that did the foreign policy writing. My portfolio was strictly domestic policy, but that was big, and that was huge, because that was the main focus of the Clinton presidency.
What was a typical day like?
There were no typical days. Every day was different. I could say that generally speaking there were long days, because Clinton never saw a microphone that he didn’t like to stand in front of and speak. He was the most loquacious President in history so he kept us very busy. He could give like 4 speeches a day on different topics. He could greet the winning NCAA basketball team in the morning and give a speech on welfare reform in the afternoon and then go to a fundraiser or some kind of event in the evening, so he kept us very busy. When you take a job like that you sort of relinquish your life to the job for a while. So there were no typical days, but they were typically long.
Sounds like the West Wing. Is that show an accurate portrayal of life in the White House?
I think that the West Wing captures pretty accurately the pace and the sporadic, frenetic atmosphere of the White House. Of course, we could never solve problems in one hour. I did get a chance to go to the set of the West Wing TV show and I was impressed with the way they had done the Oval Office, but the other offices, especially in the West Wing, did not look accurate.
Were you ever a consultant for the show?
They did come to the White House a few times. They hung out with us, talked with us. Reader’s Digest did a special issue in which they compared the real people in the White House with the people who were depicted on the West Wing. They paired me up with Rob Lowe. I had to remind Rob that he’s playing me, I’m not playing him, even though he’s getting paid a lot more.
What was Clinton like?
I think it is commonly known that President Clinton is a brilliant man. I think I read somewhere where he had trained himself to sleep only 2 or 3 hours a night. He was prone to having bright ideas in the wee hours of the morning and calling people. He never called me in the wee hours of the morning. I guess a couple times he did call me, but, you know, you could expect the unexpected from him at any time.
He was not a coarse or cantankerous person, he was very congenial to his staff. He was very appreciative of the work that we did. He liked to have light moments and laugh with us and talk with us. He was very accommodating to our requests, like if he gave a big speech, once it was printed out, I might ask Betty Currie the secretary, “Could you get the President to sign this for me?” And, he would do it. Things like that. So, I have a big portfolio of memorabilia from the White House including pictures that I’ve taken with him, signed speeches, notes that he’s written… He was very easy to work for, once you got over the fact that he might not use all the words that you gave him.
Percentage-wise, how much was Clinton following the script versus doing his own thing?
That’s an interesting yet somewhat of a difficult question. He did what we call “riff” a lot once he had a script. He would assess the audience, then he would sort of be off to the races and do what he wanted to do. But, it was a good balance between... I mean he always read the script, and when I say read it, before he went on stage he always knew what was in it. I would say there was about a 50-50 chance that he would read what you gave him.
Then there were some events like a State of the Union, which we put the script on a teleprompter, and he would read it verbatim. Every Saturday he had a radio address, which was supposed to be 5 minutes, and he would pretty much stick to the script there. You know, it depended on the event, and how much he knew the people and how much he knew the subject, how long he would go.
You mentioned before that you have a lot of memorabilia, you must also have some incredible memories. Can you give us some highlights?
A couple of times come to mind. The first was the eulogy that President Clinton delivered for Barbara Jordan, she’s been called the first African-American woman everything. She was the first African-American woman elected to Congress from the South. She was huge, from Texas. She died in 1996 and I helped him write the eulogy that he delivered at her funeral.
I didn’t go with him to the funeral. I was out at dinner with my wife and I got a beep from the White House so I ran home and they said you have a call from the President. I thought, “Oh God, what did I do this time.” The voice came on and said hold for the President, and the President came on and said, “Terry, I just wanted to let you know that I really appreciated the help that you gave me on the Barbara Jordan eulogy. It went over very well and I just wanted to thank you personally.” Of course I was floored. I had never gotten a call from the President and I don’t think he did that generally to the speechwriters, so that was a great moment.
The second big moment, which is even bigger than this one, was when, and I do remember the date on this, May 18, 1997, the President came to my alma matter, Morgan State University, to deliver the commencement address which I had helped him prepare. You notice I’m saying helped because I don’t take credit. As a speechwriter you never take credit for your bosses work, even giving this interview I feel somewhat uncomfortable because speechwriters are supposed to be heard but not seen.
But anyway, that speech I had a lot to do with, not just in the writing of it, but also in the decision to go to Morgan and in the topic. I rode over with him in Marine One from the White House. My wife met us at the landing site and drove the last mile with us in the motorcade. But the most fantastic thing was when the President was delivering the speech. He got to a point where he was naming great Morgan State grads of the past like Kweisi Mfume and Earl Graves, who was the publisher of Black Enterprise magazine and then he said, “On a personal note, I would like to recognize Terry Edmonds, class of 1972, the first African-American speechwriter for a United States president.”
So you can imagine how great I was feeling at that moment. I think that was a major highlight of my time in the White House, that and having opportunities to bring my family into the White House to meet the President. My mother, I’ll never forget the day when I got her in to meet the President, she was so proud.
Were there any speeches that Clinton delivered that just blew you away?
One speech in particular brought me to tears. It was a speech that he gave on the day of the Million Man March on October 16, 1995. There was a lot of contention within the White House about what the President should or shouldn’t say about the march because of Louis Farrakhan and all that.
The President called up a bunch of us into his office, including myself, and asked us point blank what do you think I should do? When he got to me I said, “Well Mr. President, I think you should acknowledge the fact that hundreds of thousands of African-American men are coming to Washington for a positive purpose, to make a positive statement about atonement and about being positive role models for their families and for the country. I don’t think you need to deal with the leadership of the march at all, just don’t talk about that. But I think you would be remiss if you didn’t acknowledge that something big was happening in Washington.”
He wasn’t in Washington that day. He gave the speech in Texas. He had already been scheduled to go. Some said he should give a speech on a totally different topic and not race or the Million Man March, but he decided to talk about it and I think it was a very good speech on the racial divide. He talked about not only the responsibility of white America to atone for things like slavery and continuing discrimination, but also reminded African-Americans that they have a responsibility to lead lives of dignity and to take advantage of the opportunities that they have. He wasn’t saying that racism or the racial problem in America is over but that we need to shift it from an us versus them mentality to all of us accepting responsibility for making things better.
You left the White House in 2001, but returned to politics in May 2004 to work on the Kerry campaign. How did that come about?
I was working at AARP in Washington and I got a call from a good friend of mine who was working on the Kerry campaign in the speechwriting office. He said, “We think you could add something to this effort and they want you to come over.” I initially said no because I had sort of taken a step back from the political freneticism and I was kind of enjoying the fact that I had a life again. But they were persistent and my inner commitment to make a difference and to be involved in the political process sort of won out so I decided to go over there. My title was chief speechwriter for the John Kerry campaign.
There was some talk in the press about Kerry mentioning a Langston Hughes poem in a speech. Were you involved with that?
Actually, that’s how I got involved in the campaign. Kerry was giving a speech in Topeka, Kansas to talk on the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. This was before I was on staff and they asked would I help and I did. One of the themes of that speech I got from a Langston Hughes poem, “Let America Be America Again.” He really liked it and we quoted some of the poem in the speech. We talked about the fact that 40 or 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education we still are striving to live up to the ideals of the Constitution and of our founders, and that was something that was embodied in that Langston Hughes poem.
We saw you described somewhere as “the poetry-loving speechwriter.” Do you like that characterization?
I love that, because poetry is my first love in the writing world. I think a speech is somewhat of a performance; it has to have a certain rhythm, a certain cadence, much like a poem. When I am writing a speech I am always conscious not only of the words, but also of the pacing and the rhythm of it. And then of course whenever I can, whenever it’s appropriate, whenever it works, I try to find a good poetic phrase or quote to emphasize a point.
So, were you a poet at one time in your life?
I would say once a poet, always a poet. It’s not like I was a poet once in my life, I still consider myself a poet. There was a time when by day I had a PR job in Baltimore, and by night, I would hang out with a band of street poets. We would give readings in coffee houses, in bars, in churches, community centers and it was really a wonderful wonderful experience because I got a chance to share my work with audiences - people who appreciated poetry. It was a lot of fun. During that time I was able to publish two little books of poetry, which I am very proud of.
What kind of poetry do you write?
Everything from love, which I guess that’s my number one subject, to politics, to nature, just observations of little things that are happening.
Speaking of happenings, you recently made a change in your life and moved up to New York. How is the city treating you?
I love New York. It’s a great city. I love Central Park. I love Time Warner. I love working for Dick Parsons.
So, you made the move for a job... What attracted you to Time Warner?
I have always wanted to work at a place like Time Warner because as a communications junkie, which I guess I am, whether it’s news or entertainment or books or magazines… I’m a vociferous reader and I’ve always been interested in the world at large. So when this opportunity presented itself I thought this is nirvana, because everything that I could ever imagine in the communications world, from news to entertainment to sports, which I love, just about every aspect of communications that you could think of is represented here at Time Warner. I was very excited to become of part of that.
From your mention of Dick Parsons, we’ll assume you are working as his speechwriter. Was there something specifically about him that made you want to take the job?
I must say there is an extra sense of pride working for an African-American CEO of his stature. Based on where I came up and how I grew up, it was unheard of for an African-American to be running a company like this. There is an extra dose of pride to be working beside a person like Dick Parsons.
How do like writing speeches for the chairman and CEO of Time Warner compared to political speechwriting? What are the differences?
It’s very very different. Political speechwriting is all about public policy, all about how we can improve the lives of the American people. Corporate speechwriting is about how we can improve the lives of our stockholders and of our employees and of our product line. So it’s a different emphasis. But I am finding actually that there are more opportunities than I thought to work on remarks that have a public policy emphasis. I’ve done remarks on education, on the arts, on issues like privacy and intellectual property rights. So there are some public policy issues within the communications arena that I get to work on. But then there are some of the cut and dry financial reporting kind of remarks that I would never encounter in the White House.
Before we go, are there any personal projects you want to tell us about?
I have a book that I want to write about my experiences as the first African-American speechwriter and of course I am constantly writing poetry. In fact, whenever I try and sit down and write my memoirs, inevitably poetry starts coming out. My memoir might be in the form of an epic poem.