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The Dartmouth
March 1, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Clinton writer trades pen for podium

Writing speeches for President Bill Clinton is both a "daunting task" and a "rewarding experience," said the director of the White House Office of Speechwriting, J. Terry Edmonds, in Alumni Hall yesterday.

Both Edmonds' prepared remarks and the less formal reception at Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity following the speech emphasized his perceptions of his boss' singular command of public speaking and Edmonds' role as the first African-American speechwriter in the White House.

"My job is to get inside the head of President Clinton and to write something that resonates with what he believes in and his method of speaking," Edmonds said. "Clinton makes me look good; he's a wonderful extemporaneous speaker."

Edmonds added at the reception, "He, more than anyone, is prone to veer from the script and come back to it -- to make it his own. He's good."

Edmonds drew his largest response from the crowd at SAE when he tried to answer a question about Vice President Al Gore's difficulties in public speaking.

"It may not be a question of the quality of the speech, but ... sort of the delivery," he said.

Laura Smalligan '04 interpreted his reaction to the audience's laughter as "realizing he had let something he didn't want to slip. I think he was surprised that he actually said it."

A recurring theme of the evening was the irony of a speechwriter making a speech.

"For most of my career, my job is to be heard and not seen; it brings a whole new meaning to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man," Edmonds said. "I'm much more comfortable behind the pen than the podium."

Edmonds prefaced his comments with a short life history -- from his youth in the "persistent shadow of poverty" within inner city Baltimore to his nearly 30-year career in public affairs that has culminated with a job "writing for the most loquacious president in the history of the country."

Edmonds said his objective in speaking at the College was to encourage Dartmouth students to "use their education to clear a path for those who follow."

Though he called himself "a presidential speechwriter who happens to be black," Edmonds also said, "I gravitate towards race issues," and two of the four speeches he designated his most memorable concerned issues of race.

The trait common to all of the four speeches Edmonds mentioned, however, was the fact that he received special recognition as a result of them, both from Clinton and the public.

However, when asked later if he had difficulty with the lack of glory natural to his occupation, Edmonds replied, "It's part of the deal. You leave your ego at the door. The reward is to hear your words repeated or delivered by a public figure, especially the President."

Students in attendance were impressed with Edmonds, as Jesse Argon '02 explained, saying, "It made a lot of speeches you hear in Washington more real."

Kristan Lockett '03 said she was especially pleased to hear Edmonds speak. "It was encouraging to see another African-American who plays a big part in the world -- very inspiring."

Student organizer J.R. Lederer '02, who introduced the speaker, said Edmonds "spoke to the issues -- what actually goes on in Washington" and was "thoughtful with his words."

Lederer noted that Edmonds was "more comfortable" at SAE, as opposed to the formal setting of the speech at Alumni Hall.

Edmonds' visit to Dartmouth was sponsored by SAE as the fraternity's inaugural Professor Andrew J. Scarlett lecture. The event was cosponsored by the Tucker Foundation.