Baltimore native has power of words

J. Terry Edmonds to lead White House speech-writing corps

August 10, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- For J. Terry Edmonds, it has been a dizzying ascent from the projects of South Baltimore to the pinnacles of power, and next week, the speech-writer will reach the summit of his profession -- wordsmithing in the Oval Office.

President Clinton yesterday named Edmonds, a Baltimore native and Columbia resident, as his director of speech writing. He will be the first African-American to serve as a chief presidential speech-writer.

Edmonds, 49, had held lower posts at the White House speech-writing office, including deputy director, before leaving in December 1997 to take over as associate commissioner for external affairs at the Social Security Administration in Baltimore. Last month, he and Christopher F. Edley Jr., a Harvard law professor, finished their work on the draft of a book that Clinton plans to write about race in America.

"Terry Edmonds has already served my administration with great distinction," Clinton said in a statement announcing Edmonds' appointment. "And I am looking forward to the invaluable contribution he will make in this new role."

When the president's longtime speech-writing chief, Michael Waldman, announced his departure, White House aides turned to Edmonds almost immediately. They contacted him two weeks ago to gauge his interest in the post.

"I was a poor boy from the projects of Cherry Hill, and next week, I'll be sitting in the Oval Office with the president of the United States," Edmonds marveled yesterday.

Waldman had come to the White House with a background in policy-making but quickly gained a solid reputation as a speech-writer.

Edmonds, in contrast, has always been a wordsmith, having written free-lance journalism articles, floor speeches for former Rep. Kweisi Mfume as Mfume's press secretary in 1987, and speeches for Health Secretary Donna E. Shalala.

He wrote the speech that Clinton gave at Edmonds' alma mater, Morgan State University, in 1997, as well as the well-received address the president delivered in October 1995 on the day of the "Million Man March."

"Terry doesn't just write words; he speaks with this authentic voice," said Ann Lewis, a White House adviser who worked closely with Edmonds when she was the president's communications director. "He and the president share this traditional way of speaking: evocative, resonant, religious without necessarily using religious words."

His new post will drive him directly into the policy realm. Where Edmonds had once produced speeches on demand with little influence over their policy content, he will now have daily and direct contact with the president to discuss the substance of the speeches.

Though Edmonds has been given a broad domestic portfolio, from education to welfare to crime to the budget battle, he said that with a stable of seven speech-writers under him, he would be doing "more managing and less writing."

With all his experience, Edmonds freely concedes that he is still somewhat awed by the notion of walking into the Oval Office and discussing policy with the president of the United States.

"But after a while, you realize you're there for a reason," he said. "You have something to contribute, so you just jump right in and go for it."

Writing speeches for Clinton can be somewhat unnerving, because Clinton typically takes the carefully crafted words of his speech-writers and rewrites them or extemporaneously veers far afield. Edmonds still cringes when he remembers the first speech he wrote for the president, a 1995 address to the Florida state legislature that took at least a week of his diligent labor.

"I was sitting there with my script, following along and by the third page, I said, `He's not saying anything I wrote,' " Edmonds recalled.

On some speeches, such as Clinton's weekly radio address, or on lengthy speeches, such as the State of the Union, the president will stick mostly to the words as written. But otherwise, Edmonds said, he has come to understand that his job is "to give him a draft that has all the right information, all the right policies, that has all the right flow to it, that he can use as a springboard to do what he does best" -- improvise.

Edmonds is still amazed at how far he has come, from a childhood that tossed him around the mostly poor, mostly black neighborhoods of Baltimore, to City College, to Morgan State. He says he takes seriously the historic role of being the first African-American chief presidential speech-writer, though he says he in no way believes he was offered the post because he is black.

"It does sound like an awesome responsibility," he said. "Hopefully, it's a sign to young African-Americans, particularly young African-American males, that if you apply yourself, believe in yourself, work at bringing out the best of your abilities, there's no limit to where you can go."

Edmonds' return to Washington also gives Baltimore something of a sweep in the White House. Christina Macy, a Baltimorean, is the first lady's chief speech-writer.

Pub Date: 8/10/99

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