Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Edmonds Discusses Speechwriting Career

By Emily Nash Hoya Staff Writer

In a speech with a group of Georgetown students, Director of White House Speechwriting Terry Edmonds admitted to being “much more comfortable behind the pen than behind the podium.” He addressed students at a lecture sponsored by the Lecture Fund on Tuesday.

Edmonds, who grew up in the Cherry Hill housing projects of Baltimore, told students he empathized with their concerns about the difficulty of becoming involved in government. He characterized his family as a supportive but working class family and told students he faced several hurdles on the road to becoming the first black speechwriter for a United States president.

“I’m not gonna kid you and say it was easy, especially because I faced some racial barriers along the way,” Edmonds said. “But if you believe in yourself, achieving your goals is as hard or as easy as you make it.”

Edmonds said he had a long career in public affairs, marketing and free-lance writing before coming to the White House as a speechwriter in 1995. Two of his previous employers were Donna Shalala, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and former Congressman and current NAACP President Kweisi fume.

Though Edmonds emphasized that success in his profession involves good writing skills and a deep commitment to public service, he told students there are many different paths to becoming a speechwriter.

Edmonds graduated from Morgan State University, in Baltimore, as an English major and said he never took a professional speechwriting course. “In fact,” he said, “I never even knew it existed.”

While he encouraged students who may be interested in speechwriting to seek internships in the field, he told students that writing for the president was not his goal in college.

“I sang my way through college and almost sang my way out of college,” Edmonds said, prompting students to consider that career goals can and do change.

He described his job as a “wild ride,” and told students he plans to take a long nap after his time in the White House. Though he would entertain the possibility of moving to the Gore camp if the vice-president is Bill Clinton’s (SFS ’68) successor, he told students that working at the White House involves a lot of energy and stamina.

“There’s a reason there’s a lot of young people there,” Edmonds said, describing a typical day’s work as writing, editing and fact-checking three to four speeches. While some speeches may take several days to write, he said others have been prepared on the president’s way to the podium. A typical workday lasts 12 hours, but he said he and his staff of six worked 15 to 20 hours per day during the three weeks prior to the State of the Union address.

“You give your life up to your job,” Edmonds said, though he stressed how rewarding the collaborative process can be. Speechwriters have a powerful voice, he said, in that they determine how the political message of a public servant will be delivered.

Describing Clinton as “one of the most loquacious presidents in history,” Edmonds said it is sometimes difficult to keep up with the volume of speeches the president gives.

“Writing for another person is a unique skill,” he said, explaining it takes a long time to master another’s personal style. Describing Clinton’s speech as colloquial and influenced by Southern dialect, he also stressed that the president does not solely rely on what is prepared for him.

Edmonds praised the president’s own writing abilities, saying that when Clinton gets the first draft of an important speech, he “improves it immensely without much effort.” And though Clinton does not customarily practice his speeches, Edmonds described him as a very practiced speaker.

“Clinton is prone to stray from the script,” Edmonds said, explaining that the president is articulate enough to feel out a room and come up with his own anecdotes to suit the occasion. Edmonds told students he barely recognized the first speech he wrote for Clinton, though the president later told him not to take it personally.

Edmonds emphasized that a speech is never final until it is delivered and that he is often surprised by what Clinton says in his speeches.

“He invests so much that in the end, the speech is his,” Edmonds said. “Many eyes see the speeches, but the president’s are the sharpest of all of them.”

According to Jessica Melton (COL ’03), his remarks on the art of speechwriting working for President Clinton were quite engaging. “It was exciting to see that there’s still some idealism in government and that real people are part of the process,” she said.

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