Edmonds, Terry 1950(?)–
Terry Edmonds 1950(?)–
In 1995 Terry Edmonds became the first African American speechwriter for a United States President. As a member of the creative, enthusiastic, and diverse team that crafts all of Bill Clinton’s official public utterances, Edmonds—a former public relations specialist—more than “represents the diversity that Mr. Clinton talks about for the country,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Michael K. Frisby. The journalist also pointed out that the two men both survived rather difficult childhoods; like Clinton, Edmonds was also the first in his family to attend college. Edmonds’ specialty was initially science-related issues, but he has become a key player in drafting the president’s objectives and other topics. In his position as deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of speechwriting, Edmonds has provided Clinton with access to a singular perspective on issues concerning African Americans—a viewpoint that the President drew heavily upon when he announced a new focus on racial reconciliation late in his second term.
Edmonds grew up in the Baltimore area in the 1950s with his mother, Naomi Parker, a waitress, and her husband who she divorced before Terry was five years old. “Unlike his many white, upper-middle-class, Ivy League colleagues, Mr. Edmonds felt the childhood pain of riding home on a school bus and spotting his toys and his family’s belongings on the sidewalk after his family was evicted from their apartment,” wrote Frisby in the Wall Street Journal. Later, Edmonds’ mother remarried a truck driver, but their marriage was also shaky for a number of years and the family moved often. For a time, home was in a Baltimore housing project, and the basic needs of the family, which included Edmonds and his three siblings, were provided by welfare assistance. Spam sandwiches were a diet staple. “There’s no sense sugar-coating it,” Edmonds told the Toronto Star’s Kathleen Kenna. “We were pretty poor ….It was an unstable household.”
Edmonds, who had dreamed of becoming a writer since his childhood, made his way through school and into college. “When you grow up in poverty there are two roads you can take,” Edmonds told Kenna. “One is to be bitter and be beaten down by it. The other is to be even
At a Glance…
Born c. 1950, in Baltimore, MD; son of Naomi Parker; married; wife’s name, Antoinette; children: Maga. Education: Morgan State University, B.A., 1973.
Career: Maryland Mass Transit Administration, Baltimore, MD, public relations specialist, 1978-82; Trahan, Burden and Charles Advertising, Baltimore, director of public relations, 1982-87; Joint Center for Political Studies, Inc., Washington, D.C., director of communications, 1985-8 7; the office of Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-MD.), Washington, press secretary, 1987-88; Macro Systems, Silver Spring, MD, consultant, 1987-89; Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland, Baltimore, manager of media relations, 1989-90; University Research Corporation, Bethesda, MD, subcontract manager for public relations work, 1990-91; R.O.W. Sciences, Rockville, MD, task manager for public relations projects, 1991-93; the office of Donna Shalala, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Washington, began as senior speech-writer, became deputy director of speechwriting, 1993-95; deputy assistant to President Bill Clinton and presidential speechwriter, 1995-97, promoted to deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of speech-writing, June of 1997.
Addresses: Home —Columbia, MD. Office — The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20500.
more determined to rise above it.” At Baltimore’s Morgan State University, Edmonds acquired a love for Shakespeare, and graduated in 1973 with a degree in English. Utilizing that degree by entering the field of public relations and corporate communications, by 1978 Edmonds was a communications specialist for the Maryland Mass Transit Administration. He left the public sector in 1982, taking a position as director of public relations for a Baltimore advertising agency; in 1985 he began taking on work for a Washington, D.C. think tank, the Joint Center for Political Studies, Inc. There he served as director of communications, which worked toward developing an African American-centered analysis of political, social, and economic issues.
Edmonds’ talents soon brought him in demand elsewhere in the nation’s capital. In 1987 he left both the Joint Center and his prestigious advertising agency management position and began working in the office of Kweisi Mfume, a Democrat elected to the House of Representatives from Maryland. Edmonds spent a year as press secretary for Mfume, who would later go on to lead the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Quitting the hectic pace of government life, Edmonds began working as a public relations consultant for government agencies which subcontracted out their communications needs.
In the late 1980s Edmonds spent a year in Baltimore as manager of media relations for health-insurance giant Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland, and throughout the early part of the next decade continued to work as a consultant. His jobs grew to include an increasing number of public-health-related assignments, and it was these jobs that brought him to the attention of the new U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala. The cabinet member had been appointed by Clinton at the onset of his first term, and Shalala hired Edmonds as a senior speechwriter in 1993 not long after taking office. For Shalala and her undersecretary, Edmonds penned speeches on a variety of topics such as AIDS, health care for the disadvantaged, and violence in America. Edmonds’ duties also included drafting Shala-la’s influential Congressional testimony on a variety of similar topics. At the Health and Human Services offices he was promoted to deputy director of speechwriting, but in 1995 was wooed away by Shalala’s boss to become the first African American speechwriter for a U.S. President at the White House.
Edmonds joined a team of energetic, dedicated speech-writers after passing a “blind” test, in which they were required to write a sample presidential address such as an inaugural speech on the spot. He began as deputy assistant to the President and speechwriter, served as senior advisor for speechwriting on the Clinton/Gore 1996 reelection campaign, and was promoted to deputy director of speechwriting in the summer of 1997. Like his fellow presidential speechwriters, Edmonds wears a pager and is always on call. His day begins with an 8:30 a.m. staff meeting in the Oval Office, where the president’s schedule and speechwriting needs are mapped out, and sometimes stretches long hours into the evening or even following day.
As the first African American speechwriter for a U.S. president, Edmonds occupies a singularly unique position in history. Though he is not automatically handed all the speechwriting assignments pertinent to minorities, Edmonds does admit that he possesses “a special sensitivity, knowledge, and affinity for issues that affect the African American community,” as he told Emerge’s Kevin Merida. “So I tend to volunteer to work on those speeches. “During Clinton’s second term, these speeches included a moving eulogy for prominent former Congressperson Barbara Jordan, and Clinton’s well-received, long overdue official government apology to the victims of the so-called Tuskegee experiment, a group of African American servicemen who were part of a mid-century federal research project to track venereal disease when left untreated for decades.
Though Edmonds admitted to relishing many of the perks of his job—such as flying on Air Force One—he also conceded that keeping one’s own voice and opinions in line may be the hardest part. “That’s the real challenge of this job, basically, to keep your ego in check,” Edmonds told Kenna in the Toronto Star, noting that the very nature of his job required him and his colleagues to remain anonymous. “I’ve got to be honest, the invisible nature of it is something that makes it thankless, but it is extremely rewarding, fulfilling, to be here and be involved in history and working with the president. I like Bill Clinton, I admire him.”
Collaboration is an important element of Edmonds’ job, and steady input from his speechwriting colleagues is perhaps the best way to insure that Clinton’s pronouncements are consistent in stance and tone. Yet Edmonds has also worked hard to insure that a proper focus on issues of interest to African Americans is provided. He has achieved noteworthy success with Clinton’s speeches on racial topics, but Edmonds also provides important feedback on matters outside of speechwriting; for one of Clinton’s State of the Union addresses, Edmonds and his colleagues put together a list of eminent academics to consult, and in the process of whittling that list down, Edmonds noticed that too many of the African American names were being eliminated. Two of them were saved.
Edmonds also strongly advised the President to speak on race matters on the day of the Million Man March on Washington, D.C., a 1996 gathering of African American males. Clinton was on the campaign trail in Texas that day and was undecided about whether or not to use the opportunity to speak about African American political topics; with Edmonds’ guidance, he did. Edmonds has also played an important role in a new administrative focus on racial reconciliation embarked upon during the president’s second term. As affirmative action programs were declared invalid in some states, and hate crimes against minorities were on the rise, Clinton announced an initiative to launch a serious discussion on racism and relations between blacks and whites in America. It is an attempt to bring the race issue “from out of the shadows and into the spotlight,” as Edmonds explained to Merida in Emerge. “We are obsessed with our differences to the point that we make judgments about each other based on these ancient preconceived notions,” Edmonds continued. “We talk at each other instead of to each other.”
Clinton assembled an advisory panel headed by a historian and announced his aim in launching a new era in American attitudes in what became known as the “Race Speech” in June of 1997. Edmonds was the primary speechwriter for the stirring address given at commencement ceremonies at the University of California at San Diego, in which the President urged Americans to “draw strength from our people and our ancient faith in the quality of human dignity, to become the world’s first truly multiracial democracy.”
In her profile on Edmonds, Kenna, the Toronto Star’s Washington bureau chief, also compared him with the Chief Executive, noting that both came from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds. (Incidentally, both are married to successful women, and have a daughter—an only child—around the same age.) “He understands the plight of black people,” Edmonds said of Clinton in an article in the Wall Street Journal, “but is not patronizing.” Edmonds has said that the hardest part of his job is finding the right “voice” for Clinton, and looks to worthy role models of the past in attempting to shape that tone. “Whenever I’m writing, I do hear the voice of someone in my head,” Edmonds confessed in the Toronto Star interview. “I aspire to the highest level—I hear the voice of Martin Luther King.”
Emerge, September 1997.
Jet, November 4, 1994, p. 12.
Toronto Star, July 20, 1997, p. F1.
Wall Street Journal, May 21, 1997, p. A16.
Additional information for this profile was provided by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) web site, November 4, 1997 (http://www.asne.org).