J. Terry Edmonds
Mr. Edmonds served as Assistant to the President and Director of Speechwriting during the final term of President William Jefferson Clinton. In that capacity he was responsible for the production of all of the President's domestic policy speeches on such issues as education, transportation, race relations, welfare reform, health care reform, the State of the Union and the federal budget. Prior to assuming the leadership of the White House speechwriting office and beginning in 1995, Mr. Edmonds served as Deputy Director of Speechwriting for the President. He came to the White House after two years as Deputy Director of Speechwriting for HHS Secretary, Donna Shalala.
Terry Edmonds currently serves as Executive Speechwriter for Time Warner, Inc., the world's largest media company. In this capacity, he serves as the primary speechwriter for CEO Dick Parsons. He also serves as a senior member of Time Warner's corporate communications team, contributing to overall public relations strategy and message development.
Mr. Edmonds came to Time Warner in April, 2005 after serving for three years as Director of Editorial Management for AARP, the nation's largest advocacy and membership organization devoted to improving the lives of older Americans.
He is a graduate of Baltimore's Morgan State University.
In addition to his professional accomplishments, Mr. Edmonds has always believed in giving something back to his community. Born and raised in the inner-city projects of Baltimore, he has consistently reached out to young people and given inspirational talks to dozens of audiences, including elementary, high school and college students. In recent years, he has delivered speeches to audiences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, Harvard University's Kennedy School, Dartmouth College, Auburn University, Auburn University, Cuyahoga Community College, Howard Community College, Southside Academy Middle School, Morgan State University, the Las Vegas Chapter the International Association of Business Communicators and the Nevada Governor Points of Light Awards.
Terry Edmonds and I sat down for coffee and a muffin on a Saturday morning recently. We talked about politics and current events as if we were old friends as opposed to two people who had just met.
Terry has a gentle and a thoughtful spirit. He takes nothing in his life for granted and he made it a point to share this with me:
"I just want to convey how blessed I am to have been able to work with President Clinton and now, Dick Parsons, the CEO of Time Warner. Growing up in the projects of Baltimore I never could have imagined getting the chance to write speeches for the most powerful person on the planet and now the most powerful media executive in America -- and a black man to boot. I want to use these opportunities to spread the message of empowerment and unity and inspire others to use their gifts to do the same."
And that is exactly what he is busy doing everyday.
DR: The first question that I want to ask you Terry is:
What is the question that you would most want me to be asked?
TE: (Laughs) That's a trick question.
"If there was one question that I would like you to ask me..."
Probably, "What are the building blocks of my success?" or "What in my life inspired, supported, guided me along the path that I have chosen?"
DR: So Terry,
What are the things that have guided you toward your success? Talk to me about your guiding force.
TE: Well I guess, you know what I have done, right? So we don't even have to go through that.
You know that I am the first African American Speech Writer for an American President and my career has now taken me to become the Chief Speechwriter for the CEO of Time Warner. All of this coming from a very working class background.
I grew up in the projects of Baltimore's inner-city and I had, I would say, a pretty tough childhood. I spent some time in a foster home. I know what it feels like to be evicted from your home. I know what welfare feels like because the family was on welfare for awhile. And I was one of those kids that people would always say "Well, we might have been poor but, we were rich in other ways." I didn't handle poverty that well. I was not one of those kids that said "I'm rich". I was like "We po'!" Ya know, roaches and rats. That's po'. I didn't like it.
The thing that sustained me, from my earliest memory -- I just had a connection with the inner spirit. It was nurtured by my mother who was a strong North Carolina Christian Presbyterian woman. She has since passed away. But I embraced spirituality very early in my life. I embraced the teachings of Jesus Christ very early in my life and since I developed my own sort of spiritual path which extended beyond any one church or any one religion. I would say that spirituality is the number one thing that has sustained me through everything -- my faith in God, which was nurtured again by my mother and my father. Even though times were tough and there was some "disfunctionality" and drinking and fighting and all that other stuff in the family, there was also a focus on - for them it was the church, for me - I call it spirituality.
Once you have a belief in a higher power, which is an inner thing for me, it translates into confidence and faith in yourself. Through everything, I have always had faith in myself.
My mother always told me that you can do anything that you want to. She always encouraged me to make my own choices, even when I said "Well, ya know I am in college now and I think I want to drop out and get a job because I am tired of being poor. I want to go to the local factory and make widgets." She said "O.K, go. If that's what you want to do, do it." Of course I only stayed there two weeks and then I went back to school, but she would encourage me to always follow my heart and my dreams. That's the number one thing that sustained me - faith in God and faith in myself.
DR: Share something with me that people would be surprised to know about you.
TE: There is quite a bit that thy might be surprised to know about me but, is it printable?
(We laugh heartily)
We will start with the printable...
DR: I'll take an unprintable too...
TE: No, no.
Well one thing that I am proud of that people might be surprised to know is that in my last years of high school and college, I was the lead singer in a band - a soul band. I sang like Smokey Robinson. Smokey Robinson is my hero as far as music goes. The reason that I like Smokey is two fold -
I love his voice but I also love the fact that he was a writer.
He wrote most of his music and it was just some of the most beautiful poetry that I could think of. Songs like 'You Must Be Love', 'Ooo Baby Baby',
DR:'Tears of A Clown'...
TE: 'Tears of A Clown', yeah.
People might be surprised to know that I sang my way through college. I almost sang my way out of college because I had so much fun on the stage that I didn't go to class sometimes. They might be surprised to know that.
That also dovetailed with my other passion which is poetry. I write poetry. I am very select about who I show it to...
I am following two paths. I am sort of a conventional business person, political, mainstream, but I also have this other side of me which is "revolutionary", which is like "Down with the system", ya know. So I have had to be very judicious about keeping my poetic side... underground. I don't know if that makes sense...
DR: It does make sense. What does it mean to you to be inspired?
TE: I think first of all, what it means is to know without a doubt that I am a child of God and that as such, I am equipped with everything that I need for success and that it is my birthright -- to be happy and to be successful and to be loving, to love and to be loved. That's number one.
To be inspired is also to meet and to connect with people who share that belief, display that belief and are gracious enough to give it to other people.
When you talk about people who have inspired me in my life - my mother, my father, Martin Luther King, Smokey Robinson, Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali-these are people who defy the odds and didn't let anybody tell them...they didn't believe the hype that they were not worthy or that they could not achieve. They understood that they had the spark within them and they allowed it to burn. That is inspiring to me.
I meet people who have a positive outlook of life and who are confident, without being cocky. There's a difference -- confident without being obnoxious, ya know. Some of that is a cover up for insecurity. You can tell the difference between a secure, confident person and one who is a pretender...
DR: What does it mean to you to be inspiring then?
TE: Inspiring? Well of course, I do have this "humble pie" side of myself and I am trying to not be too humble theses days because part of what we need is confidence and the energy to express stuff.
For me inspiring means that I use the gifts that I have to share with other people and to help other people realize their potential and to realize God and the light in themselves. I think that is really my true mission in life. We have jobs. We have careers. We have relationships. I feel like I am a very lucky person because I have discovered my true purpose, which is to be a light, which is to be inspired, which is to share the gifts that I have with other people so that we can lift the whole planet up.
There was a time when spirituality was all focused on the individual "How can I improve myself? How can I be happier?" That's wonderful. I think that's a good starting point, but I think that we are now at a point where you can't just keep it to yourself. You've got to share it because we are all one and none of us will succeed unless all of us succeed. It's important to me to be that kind of person.
DR: Is there anything that scares you?
TE: I would be less than honest if I said that I had eradicated fear completely out of my life. Of course I want to be that paragon of spirituality where there is no fear. However - yeah, I am still a human being on the planet and I still have some fears.
I'm still dealing with some deep issues like relationships and, I am more afraid for my loved one s than I am for myself. It's kind of like - well I am a parent too. I know how much you love your daughter and how much I love mine. When you see things like "911" you want to make sure that your loved ones are O.K. You think about them before you think of yourself. I guess there is a little bit of fear there, but I really have made a conscious choice to live in the light and not to be controlled by fear because I think that is the root of our problems. People are fearful of what they don't understand -- people who are different then them, that they are going to lose something, there is not enough for everybody so I have to get more of this - I am trying to be brave about that kind of stuff and just realize that there is enough. "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be given unto you". I try to live by that.
DR: I am wondering if there is something for you that would need to occur in your lifetime for you to one day, at the end of it all, be able to look back at your life and feel that you have lived a life of no regrets, completely satisfied with how it has gone...
TE: You are saying "What would make me feel that way"?
DR: Yes, so that at the end of your life you are sort of sitting on a porch reflecting on all of it...
DR: and you are happy about how it all went. You've got no regrets!
DR: What would have needed to happen for you to be able to be sitting in that rocking chair like that?
TE: Wow. That's an interesting question.
I am one of those people that lives in the now and so I believe that I am sitting in that rocking chair right now and there is sort of no such thing as past, present, future, it's all right now.
I try to live each day as if it is my last day. I may die right now sitting here talking to you. (Laughs) So for me it's just doing...
In "AA" they call it "doing the next right thing"... every moment that we breathe we have an opportunity to make a choice...every moment we are making choices. So my feeling is to stay focused on positivity at all times so that every choice I make is a choice that I can be proud of and I can't say how it's all going to turn out but, my job is just to make the best choice I can make in every moment and leave the rest up to the Universe.
As far as specifics, of course I would love to die with enough money to take care of my family...I'd like to leave a legacy like a book of my work; a body of work that I can be proud of and that can inspire other people....I'd like to die or sit on that rocking chair (laughs) -- let's not talk about death - but love. I'd like to clear up all the relationship confusion that I have had in my life and be happy and in love with someone, that kind of thing. Yeah.
DR: What would be one of the best choices that you have made in your life?
TE: Wow. Boy you ask some very wide open questions.
DR: I am just allowing myself to be inspired by what you are saying.
TE: One of the best choices that I have made? I have made so many.
DR: So many good choices?
DR: Tell me about one.
TE: Well I'd like to talk about my daughter. Being a father to my daughter is one of the best choices I have made in my life. There is nothing else that has given me as much joy as being a father. Seeing her grow up and become successful - I mean the girl has just bought her second house and she is 27 years old. Where did that come from!? When I was her age I was still trying to get out of college. That has given me a lot of joy, being a father to her.
I meet so many people who talk about there kids like "Oh, they're so terrible". I am so blessed because she is beautiful and she has never given me any trouble. She is just a joy.
DR: Clearly she is something that you would consider one of your contributions. I can see that on your face, but tell me about another thing that you feel you have contributed to the world.
TE: Well I guess I have to say that the work that I have done with Bill Clinton has been a highlight and something that I am very proud of. I really am not, or wasn't that political when I joined the administration in 1993 -- first to work for Donna Shalayla and then in 1995 to work for Bill Clinton -- but I have always had a deep concerned for politics and issues.
I am a child of the sixties. I was recruited by the Black Panthers. I didn't join but I grew up in that generation where Martin Luther King and all of that, so that working with Bill Clinton and helping him, especially on the issues of race - he was one of the few President's since Lyndon Johnson who wanted to put the issue of race on the table and shine a spotlight on it. Everybody else was running away from it saying "That's over. Civil Rights is over. Blacks have their rights. Let's go with something else", -- but Clinton got it! He understood. I think because of the fact that he grew up in a segregated south...
I was just proud of moving that conversation along, and some of the other stuff that I did for him. Being the first African American Speechwriter, I find that when you are doing it, you don't think about it everyday. You are under the gun. You have to work. You have to produce. But one thing I will say about the Black community is that they are very proud of people who achieve. When I went back to church and my family and mother -- Jet Magazine and "Hey man! You're doin' it!"
I was proud to be an inspiration to other people and being a role model especially for young Black males who all they see is themselves on television in handcuffs.
DR: If you could wake up tomorrow with one new ability, something that you can't do right now, what would that be?
TE: You are talking something d-able? Not like I want to fly or something?
TE: Oh any thing huh? It's wide open? One new ability...I think it would be that I want to fly. I like flying. Sometimes I fly in my dreams and I thought it was a good thing until I went to church a couple of weeks ago and this guy was talking about Freud and Jung and said that people who fly in their dreams - it could be that they have an inflated opinion of themselves; an inflated ego (laughs).
Yeah. I think that's it. I don't know what else I would like to do ability-wise. I just believe in focusing on the gifts that we have been given and maximizing those and that's how you expand and grow - by using what you have.
There is so much we don't know...
I like to surprise myself, too. Growing up in inner-city Baltimore I never had any idea that I would be writing speeches for the President of the United States until it showed up; until the opportunity presented itself. So I want to always be open to surprise myself with something new. Maybe I will be a painter one day. Maybe I'll write music instead of poetry or in addition to the poetry.
DR: So a hundred years from now, what do you want to be remembered for.
TE: I want to be remembered as a person who lived a good life, who tried to use his gifts for good, to spread love and joy through the world.
I want to be remembered as an excellent writer.
I have this picture in my house of famous Black American writers and I would like to add my picture one day to that poster.
I'd just like to be remembered as a person who tried to be about healing and about love.
DR: Anything else?
TE: That's enough.