A poet versed in speechwriting

Challenge: Baltimore native Terry Edmonds' love for words leads him back to the political realm as Sen. John Kerry's chief speechwriter.

Election 2004

The Democratic Convention

July 24, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Bored stiff in his eighth-grade classroom in Baltimore, Terry Edmonds did something he had never done before: He picked up his pencil and wrote a poem, "Release Me."

It was his first crack at finding the lyrical in what seemed like the unbearably mundane, but it would open up a new world.

Forty years later, that restless boy from the projects is still using poetry to lift up what might otherwise seem dull and spiritless - politics and policy - as chief speechwriter for Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Edmonds, 54, is charged with the daunting task of putting the right words in the mouth of a candidate known for his verbose, sometimes stilted rhetorical style.

The challenge is a familiar one for Edmonds, who spent a dozen years as a political wordsmith for various officials before becoming, in 1995, the first black speechwriter in the White House. He wrote many of the phrases President Bill Clinton delivered during his 1996 re-election campaign, as well as Clinton's last and longest State of the Union address, in 2000.

Recently, Edmonds has been hard at work on another pivotal speech: the one that will introduce Kerry to the nation as he goes before the Democratic National Convention at the end of the month to accept his party's nomination for president. In a convention likely to offer few surprises, Kerry's speech is the main attraction - a crucial, nationally televised opportunity for the Massachusetts senator to stamp what could be an indelible first impression on voters across the country.

Last weekend, Edmonds was on hand at Kerry's Nantucket, Mass., beach house, consulting with him as the candidate worked to put his own finishing touches on the speech.

Edmonds is keenly aware of the stakes for Kerry in the address, one that Edmonds says has to transcend campaign stump slogans and complex proposals and give listeners a glimpse of who Kerry is.

"We don't want it to be just a list of policy prescriptions; this kind of speech has to be also introducing him as a human being to the country and clarifying or putting forth what his values are," Edmonds said.

Edmonds isn't the only important ghostwriter in the Kerry campaign; senior strategist Bob Shrum and speechwriter Josh Gottheimer, another Clinton alumnus, have been heavily involved in helping to craft next week's speech.

Still, although he has only been officially on board a little more than a month, Edmonds has quickly become an important part of Kerry's campaign operation, not least because he is one of several prominent new black faces in an organization that has been criticized for not doing enough to reach out to African-American voters.

Campaign slogan

His gift for choosing the right words, though, is what sets Edmonds apart. Even before he started work with Kerry, while helping to draft a speech in honor of the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation ruling, Edmonds handed Kerry what has become the central slogan of his campaign: "Let America be America again."

Edmonds found the passage in a poem by Langston Hughes, one of his favorite writers, who just happened to be from Kansas, the state where Kerry was to deliver the remarks.

"When I saw it, it struck me," Edmonds said in a recent interview in his office at Kerry's campaign headquarters. "It was like one of those `aha' moments, and I just thought, `This is perfect.'

"Whenever I can, I try to put poetry in a speech. If it's appropriate, I think it lifts it up, it can touch the audience in a way that prose can't," said Edmonds, whose office is nearly bare but for a few well-worn books that inspire his writing. Among them: Hughes' collected poems; Voices of Freedom, an oral history of the civil rights movement; and Ripples of Hope, a volume of speeches by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders.

In a field that tends to attract ambitious political junkies who thrive on the frenetic pace of life on a campaign, Edmonds - soft-spoken and reflective - is something of a rarity.

He needs peace and quiet to work (one of his only negotiating demands for his current job was that he have an office with a door, which he admits to closing often).

He is not given to panic episodes or temper tantrums; in moments of uncertainty or writer's block, he goes for long walks, which often lead him to a church, where he meditates.

Job with the AARP

And Edmonds is hardly a campaign addict. He hesitated about returning to the political fray after leaving it four years ago for the more civilized hours and settled lifestyle of working as the director of editorial management for the AARP, the senior citizens group. The post afforded him more time to spend at home in Columbia with his wife, Antoinette, who in 1997 suffered a stroke at age 42 that forced her to quit her job and left her with some lasting physical and verbal limitations.

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