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. Comprised 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 boys and girls would be privy only to the dust and not the shine of their ancestors?
Invisibility is the natural habitat of a ghostwriter, and even more so for a speechwriter, who is paid to be the faceless voice of a public figure. While I have held a succession of executive speechwriting roles since leaving the White House more than 20 years ago, I have often been the only person of color in the room. Workplace racial tensions are a persistent reality, and I have felt both the sharp and subtle pains of the color line.
Beyond the workplace slights, there is a bigger reason why the relative dearth of speechwriters of color is a problem. To be effective, leaders need advisers who, through their life experiences, understand the world around them. And the world is changing. The 2020 census revealed that the non-Hispanic white population in the United States declined from 64 percent in 2010 to 58 percent in 2020. As demographics shift, we see a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, a polarized argument about global climate change, and a hardening of attitudes about race. Public figures are unlikely to speak effectively on these issues to a diversifying country without more speechwriters of color. But, according to recent data, 72.5 percent of speechwriters in America are white, with speechwriters of color—Hispanic, Asian, Native American, and African American—making up only 24.9 percent.
Since retiring from my last job as speechwriter, for New York State Attorney General Letitia James, I have joined a burgeoning movement to ensure that more speechwriters of color are afforded the opportunities and professional recognition they deserve. Progress, once slow, is gathering steam. In April 2021, Shaan Heng-Devan, who describes himself as “a proud biracial first-generation immigrant,” was hired as speechwriter for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. In November, a young African American woman, Alexandra Robinson, became deputy speechwriter for Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.
The hidden hand behind these and other breakthrough opportunities is a new organization called Speechwriters of Color. Celebrating its first year, SOC is committed to increasing the number of speechwriters of color who are developing messaging and serving as “ghostwriters” for leaders in business, politics, nonprofits, and government. Through mentoring, networking, and outreach to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions, SOC hopes to inspire more young writers of color to pursue careers in speechwriting. It also wants to encourage more thought leaders from every sector to hire a diverse cadre of talented speechwriters.
SOC was founded by two young speechwriters whose career paths illustrate why the organization is needed. Growing up in Kansas City, Michael Franklin took buses to compete in high school speech and debate tournaments. When he arrived at Howard University in 2017, he joined that school’s speech and debate team. As a sophomore, Franklin was invited to a mentoring mixer at a conference of professional speechwriters at Georgetown University. It was a revelation to him. “I didn’t even know there was such a profession as speechwriting,” Franklin recalls. He was also struck that few of the speechwriters were Black like him. “I’ve been in the competitive speech and debate space since middle school and competed with tons of Black and brown folks who would write speeches for fun and compete on the weekend,” he says. “There’s no reason professional speechwriting should have been lacking so much diversity when competitive speech and debate had so many successful, diverse competitors.” The next year, he organized the first Black Speechwriters Symposium at Howard. He was also invited to a luncheon series with speechwriters on Capitol Hill. Not many people of color there, either.
One of the few was Mintaro Oba, who also noticed the lack of diversity at the Capitol Hill luncheons. The child of Japanese immigrant parents, Oba became fascinated by famous speeches as a child, breaking them down to see how their rhetoric worked. Like Franklin, he had no idea that there was such a thing as a career in speechwriting until he got to college, when his classmates at American University introduced him to The West Wing and the character Sam Seaborn, the presidential speechwriter played by Rob Lowe. The NBC drama inspired him to take a class in speechwriting, co-taught by Jeff Nussbaum, previously a speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore (and currently writing for Joe Biden). After graduating and working on Korea policy at the State Department, Oba joined a speechwriting firm where Nussbaum was a partner, West Wing Writers. He was working there when he and Franklin crossed paths at the Capitol Hill luncheons.
The following summer, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Oba send a note to a group of speechwriters suggesting that they create an organization to harness the country’s racial reckoning to bring long-term change to the speechwriting profession. Responding immediately, Franklin jumped at the chance to cofound the organization. Other writers of color agreed to sign the founding document. I am proud to be one of them.
While other speechwriting organizations are beginning to highlight the need for greater diversity in the industry, SOC is the nation’s only group specifically building a pipeline of writers of color to join the speechwriting profession and rise in its ranks. Franklin (who now works as a communications associate at the nonprofit Black Futures Lab) and Oba (speechwriter to the managing director of the International Monetary Fund), along with others at SOC, have spent countless hours without compensation, organizing public events, reaching out to HBCUs, and combing through LinkedIn profiles to create a list of hundreds of job openings, interested applicants, and current or retired speechwriters willing to provide career advice and connections.
The group’s theory of change is simple: If it can encourage more writers of color to pursue speechwriting and support them with mentoring, master class training, and job placement help, it can increase their opportunities while providing added value for their employers.
This would be a real advance over the career system I experienced back in the day, which was really no system at all. Like most speechwriters my age, I stumbled into the profession. After college at Morgan State University and a series of PR jobs, I volunteered on Kweisi Mfume’s 1986 congressional campaign in my native Maryland. When Mfume won, he made me his press secretary. When someone was needed to write his floor speeches, the job fell to me. Though I had zero training in speechwriting, I turned out to be good at it. A few years later, I was hired to be a speechwriter for Bill Clinton’s health and human services secretary, Donna Shalala. From there I went to the White House and a series of rewarding speechwriting jobs for the next 30 years.
These days, there is more of a career infrastructure for writers starting out, including speechwriting associations, firms, and even courses at a few colleges. Still, getting a job in the profession today—whether in government, nonprofits, or business—largely depends on going to the right schools and making the right connections. That puts many people of color at a disadvantage.
SOC aims to narrow that disadvantage, and in its first 12 months it can point to several notable accomplishments. More than 300 speechwriters of color and over 100 allies have become members. To date, with help from SOC, nine of its members have been hired or offered jobs at cabinet-level departments and agencies in the Biden-Harris administration. Several are working in corporate and nonprofit jobs.
It’s a start, and an important one. In the 21st century, success in business, politics, and other sectors depends on crafting messages and policies that speak to our increasingly diverse population, and that honor the dignity of everyone.
Speechwriters of Color is central to achieving that goal.
To find out more, visit https://twitter.com/SpeechwritersC.