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Putting words in the president’s mouth: when Terry Edmonds writes, people listens – Morgan State University alumnus and presidential speechwriter

Since Joining the White House in early 1995, presidential
speechwriter Terry Edmonds has toiled far away from the news media
spotlight that closely follows President Bill Clinton and his top aides.

Speechwriters rarely become known to the public and the soft-spoken
Edmonds has preferred to steer clear of the media. But when it came
time for President Clinton to deliver last month’s commencement address
at Morgan State University — the first ever by a sitting U.S.
president at a public historically Black college or university —
Edmonds found it difficult to escape the public spotlight.

As a graduate of Morgan State who has worked in public relations
and public affairs for the past twenty-four years, the
forty-seven-year-old Edmonds suddenly found himself thrust into the
public consciousness. It became a career highlight when White House
aides chose him as the primary writer of the historic commencement
address. Edmonds said he was delighted about his role in the honor
given to his alma mater.

“I was very proud of the speech,” Edmonds said.

Believed to be the first full-time African American presidential
speechwriter in U.S. history, Edmonds attracted attention for his
behind-the-scenes role in drafting President Clinton’s speech. The
speech by Clinton drew headlines around the nation because he announced
a major research push for an AIDS vaccine. Edmonds said he believed the
African American audience appreciated hearing a presidential speech
that addressed AIDS because the disease has had a devastating impact on
the Black community.

“I think the audience was receptive to the message,” he said.

The Wall Street Journal, The Baltimore Sun, and The Washington Post
were among publications that singled out Edmonds’s efforts on the
Morgan State address. And Edmonds is expected to play an ongoing role
in helping the president craft speeches for a major race relations
initiative that the White House is undertaking.

Last month’s apology by Clinton to survivors and families of
untreated Black syphilis victims in Tuskegee, Alabama, marked the first
of several events the president is leading in hopes of starting a frank
discussion among Americans about race relations. The Tuskegee syphilis
victims, which numbered in the hundreds, had participated in a federal
study that left their disease untreated for decades.

Rather than directly tackle race relations at Morgan State, Clinton
and his aides chose instead to focus on health research and science.
Edmonds said the commencement assignment allowed him to craft remarks
that reflected the diversity of issues on which he has written.

“I’ve written speeches on issues from health to defense to the economy,” he said.

On June 14, Clinton will take his race relations initiative to the
University of California at San Diego where he will deliver a
commencement address on race. Edmonds expects to make substantial
contributions to that speech.

“The President has the opportunity to send a strong message to
Americans about the need for bridging the racial divide,” Edmonds said.

Edmonds has had a hand in writing other presidential speeches on
race. Among those he takes pride in was Clinton’s delivery of a race
relations speech at the University of Texas at Austin on the day of the
Million Man March.

“That was clearly a proud moment for me,” Edmonds said of the work he co-authored.

While researching the Morgan State speech, Edmonds visited Dr. Earl
Richardson, the university’s president, to get an updated tour of the
campus. During the tour, Richardson detailed the growth of the
university — which has doubled enrollment over the past decade, added
several new degree programs, and erected new campus buildings.

“Terry was the ideal person to help President Clinton on this
commencement address. He knew Morgan’s traditions and legacy,” Dr.
Richardson said.

For Morgan State, Clinton’s speech has resulted in overwhelming
attention and newfound support for the university, according to
Richardson. He said Morgan State officials had been courting the
president to do a commencement address as early as 1992 — when Clinton
was campaigning for the presidency for the first time.

Edmonds credits his education at Morgan State for making his career
in public affairs and public relations a possibility. He graduated from
Morgan State in 1973 with an undergraduate degree in English.

“Morgan was a real lifesaver for me. It was affordable and it was
close to home,” says Edmonds, who grew up in Baltimore and developed
his ambition of becoming a writer as a teenager.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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