JCB director reflects on Clinton speechwriting

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Ted Widmer, director and librarian of the John Carter Brown Library, has worked in the world of academia as a lifelong historian. But unlike many of his colleagues, Widmer took a break from university life for a rare public service opportunity – writing speeches for the president of the United States. From 1997 to the end of the Clinton administration in 2001, Widmer specialized in drafting foreign policy speeches and providing historical analysis for the White House. 

Then an American history lecturer at Harvard in 1997, Widmer, who was only 34 at the time, heard from a friend working in the White House that a job had opened up on then-President Bill Clinton’s speechwriting team. He said the prospect of such a high-profile public service role convinced him to forward his resume for the job and to temporarily leave academia once he was hired. The recruitment process was rigorous, with multiple personal interviews, a background check and a series of test speech assignments.

“I had to try to do them quickly and well with short deadlines,” Widmer said, comparing the process to writing a paper under deadline for a class.

Once hired, Widmer joined three other staffers in the foreign policy division of the White House speechwriting office in September 1997. He reported directly to the White House National Security Advisor Sandy Berger and to President Clinton himself, writing many speeches the president used on global trips, at state dinners for foreign leaders and in outlining U.S. foreign policy.

“The whole thing was exhilarating,” Widmer said, adding that he especially enjoyed joining Clinton on trips abroad, including what at the time was the longest tour of Africa a U.S. president had ever undertaken. With the Cold War over and the U.S. redefining its global role, Widmer was at the center of foreign policy action in the late 1990s. “Everything felt really new in the world,” he said.


Crafting Clinton’s voice

Widmer said jumping from Harvard to the fast-paced life of the White House was initially challenging. “We weren’t coddled if we screwed up a speech,” Widmer said, recalling the experience of being yelled at when he erred on a speech. In academia, his more reserved colleagues usually relied on euphemisms to express disagreement or disappointment. “In the White House, it was much more brutally honest and direct.”

But Widmer noted that working for a national cause was a welcome change. “I felt deeply the patriotism that attaches itself to service of that kind,” he said. “I do love university life, but it’s honorable to serve one’s country and the cause of democracy.”

Michael Waldman, head White House speechwriter from 1995 to 1999, said the speechwriting team benefited from Widmer’s experience as a gifted historian and researcher. “President Clinton came to see the extra value that Ted brought,” Waldman said, adding that Widmer helped Clinton with the process of archiving historical records of his presidency and collecting research for Clinton’s memoir. “The president came to rely on Ted a great deal.”

Widmer often played a key role in drafting longer speeches like the annual State of the Union address, which required extensive historical research. “Ted was not someone you’d go to for a two-minute video,” Waldman said.  

The speechwriting process often required collaboration and speed. Widmer said that a couple of weeks before Clinton would deliver an address, the speechwriting team assigned it to a certain writer who would then send a first draft around to the other writers for input. Since the Internet was not yet a widely trusted and reliable source, Widmer said he often relied on his academic training as he sifted through the contents of the White House library for research. 

On the night before the president delivered the speech, the team would settle on a final copy. Widmer noted that Clinton always made small impromptu changes and added off-the-script remarks. 

The president drew inspiration from the speeches of John F. Kennedy and both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Widmer said. But Clinton developed his own distinct voice that broke with the past. “His speeches were less rhetorical than past presidential speeches and more conversational,” Widmer said.


The power of rhetoric

After Clinton left the White House in 2001, Widmer returned to academia, heading Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience. He joined Brown in 2006 as the director and librarian at the John Carter Brown Library. 

But Widmer’s days in politics are not over – he provides advice as a historian to the U.S. State Department and looks over speeches for friends who are still running for public office or working on campaigns. Widmer also writes occasional pieces for The New York Times on subjects as varied as the Civil War and Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan. 

As a historian and former presidential aide, Widmer has much to say on the 2012 presidential election, including on the speechmaking strengths of the leading contenders. “I think it’s an unfair competition,” Widmer said, labeling President Barack Obama one of the best orators of the last century. “Even though it’s not quite as new as it felt in 2008, he’s still a gifted speaker who reaches people in ways few can.”

Widmer is less sanguine about the rhetorical abilities of Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. “Romney has many strengths, but speaking isn’t one of them,” he said, adding that he thought the Democrats’ speeches at their convention were more effective than those offered by Republicans at their convention.

But the historian sees large challenges on the horizon for the election’s winner, with economic recovery as the chief domestic priority. “Speeches help, but you can’t just be optimistic about recovery,” Widmer said. “You have to show results at some point.”

With his own area of White House expertise – foreign policy – Widmer sees more of an opening for speeches to make a difference. He said he believes many Americans have lost interest in foreign policy issues, but that the president must work to project U.S. values to the world.

“Talking about our values is a very effective counterstrike in promoting democracy, participation and economic opportunity – including for people usually shut out of it,” Widmer said. “To talk well about these things would reassert American exceptionalism but … in words that aren’t just about military strength.” 

Widmer said he was glad to return to university life, especially since he grew up on Brown’s campus when his father held various posts at the University, including stints as a professor of Chinese history, dean of student life and dean of admission. “It’s nice after a few years of frantic activity to gather your thoughts,” Widmer said.

He added that his White House years of writing memos under inflexible deadlines changed his outlook on academia, leading him to work at a faster pace and communicate more efficiently. “Academics … have a lot of trouble expressing what they’re meaning to say,” Widmer said. 

Nevertheless, politicians are well-served by consulting professors for lessons of the past. “It’s great when those running for office ask academics for their expertise,” Widmer said, stressing the mutual benefits of these interactions. “I think we still have a lot to learn.”

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