Why We Need Speechwriters Who Look Like America: America's first Black presidential speechwriter on how leaders can speak more effectively to a diversifying country.

AuthorEdmonds, Terry

One of the great unheralded pleasures of being a former presidential speechwriter is being inducted into the Judson Welliver Society, named after the first presidential speechwriter--the man who wrote the immortal words of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Composed of selected former White House speechwriters, the society includes scribes for every president since Harry Truman.

I attended my first Judson Welliver Society dinner in December 2002, after my stint in the Clinton White House. It was held in the stately dining room of the Motion Picture Association's headquarters in Washington, D.C., courtesy of the society member, Lyndon Johnson speechwriter, and MPAA president Jack Valenti. The evening was capped by an after-dinner round robin of White House memories from the men and women who had written some of the most memorable and forgettable words in presidential history.

At that meeting, the society president, the late William Safire, a speechwriter for Richard Nixon and subsequently a New York Times columnist, called the roll, as was his custom, reading the names of speechwriters in attendance from their respective administrations, starting from the earliest, and asking them to stand. There was Ted Sorensen, famed speechwriter for John F. Kennedy; Richard Goodwin from the Johnson White House; Nixon's acid penman Pat Buchanan; Jimmy Carter wordsmith James Fallows; and so on.

Finally, Safire got to the Clinton writers. It was a long list, owing to Clinton being the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win reelection. It took a lot of writers to keep up with Clinton's eight-year love affair with the podium.

I waited expectantly while Safire called the Clinton roll: "Don Baer, Michael Waldman, David Kusnet, Bob Boorstin, Paul Glastris, Carolyn Curiel, Jeff Shesol, Jonathan Prince, Jordan Tamagni ..." I was more than a little puzzled as I raised my hand to get Safire's attention while slowly rising to my feet. "Excuse me, my name is Terry Edmonds. I was President Clinton's chief speechwriter, and, I might add, the first African American presidential speechwriter in the history of this country."

Perhaps there really was some innocent snafu that left my name off the list. After all, no one who looked like me had ever sat at this table. But as I took my seat, I wondered how many other times African Americans and other people of color have been written out of the pages of history. How many more generations of young African American...

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