WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Bored stiff in his eighth-grade classroom in Baltimore, Terry Edmonds did something he had never done before: He picked up his pencil and wrote a poem, "Release Me."
It was his first crack at finding the lyrical in what seemed like the unbearably mundane, but it would open up a new world.
Forty years later, that restless boy from the projects is still using poetry to lift up what might otherwise seem dull and spiritless - politics and policy - as chief speechwriter for Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Edmonds, 54, is charged with the daunting task of putting the right words in the mouth of a candidate known for his verbose, sometimes stilted rhetorical style.
The challenge is a familiar one for Edmonds, who spent a dozen years as a political wordsmith for various officials before becoming, in 1995, the first black speechwriter in the White House. He wrote many of the phrases President Bill Clinton delivered during his 1996 re-election campaign, as well as Clinton's last and longest State of the Union address, in 2000.
Recently, Edmonds has been hard at work on another pivotal speech: the one that will introduce Kerry to the nation as he goes before the Democratic National Convention at the end of the month to accept his party's nomination for president. In a convention likely to offer few surprises, Kerry's speech is the main attraction - a crucial, nationally televised opportunity for the Massachusetts senator to stamp what could be an indelible first impression on voters across the country.
Last weekend, Edmonds was on hand at Kerry's Nantucket, Mass., beach house, consulting with him as the candidate worked to put his own finishing touches on the speech.
Edmonds is keenly aware of the stakes for Kerry in the address, one that Edmonds says has to transcend campaign stump slogans and complex proposals and give listeners a glimpse of who Kerry is.
"We don't want it to be just a list of policy prescriptions; this kind of speech has to be also introducing him as a human being to the country and clarifying or putting forth what his values are," Edmonds said.
Edmonds isn't the only important ghostwriter in the Kerry campaign; senior strategist Bob Shrum and speechwriter Josh Gottheimer, another Clinton alumnus, have been heavily involved in helping to craft next week's speech.
Still, although he has only been officially on board a little more than a month, Edmonds has quickly become an important part of Kerry's campaign operation, not least because he is one of several prominent new black faces in an organization that has been criticized for not doing enough to reach out to African-American voters.
His gift for choosing the right words, though, is what sets Edmonds apart. Even before he started work with Kerry, while helping to draft a speech in honor of the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation ruling, Edmonds handed Kerry what has become the central slogan of his campaign: "Let America be America again."
Edmonds found the passage in a poem by Langston Hughes, one of his favorite writers, who just happened to be from Kansas, the state where Kerry was to deliver the remarks.
"When I saw it, it struck me," Edmonds said in a recent interview in his office at Kerry's campaign headquarters. "It was like one of those 'aha' moments, and I just thought, 'This is perfect.'
"Whenever I can, I try to put poetry in a speech. If it's appropriate, I think it lifts it up, it can touch the audience in a way that prose can't," said Edmonds, whose office is nearly bare but for a few well-worn books that inspire his writing. Among them: Hughes' collected poems; Voices of Freedom, an oral history of the civil rights movement; and Ripples of Hope, a volume of speeches by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders.
In a field that tends to attract ambitious political junkies who thrive on the frenetic pace of life on a campaign, Edmonds - soft-spoken and reflective - is something of a rarity.
He needs peace and quiet to work (one of his only negotiating demands for his current job was that he have an office with a door, which he admits to closing often).
He is not given to panic episodes or temper tantrums; in moments of uncertainty or writer's block, he goes for long walks, which often lead him to a church, where he meditates.
Job with the AARP
And Edmonds is hardly a campaign addict. He hesitated about returning to the political fray after leaving it four years ago for the more civilized hours and settled lifestyle of working as the director of editorial management for the AARP, the senior citizens group. The post afforded him more time to spend at home in Columbia with his wife, Antoinette, who in 1997 suffered a stroke at age 42 that forced her to quit her job and left her with some lasting physical and verbal limitations.
"It was a pretty sane existence compared to the rough and tumble of a presidential campaign," Edmonds said. "I was thinking, 'Why do I really want to go back, and do I have it in me physically - stamina-wise?'"
Ultimately, Edmonds said, he decided he couldn't pass up a second opportunity to head a speechwriting team for a presidential candidate.
It's a heady opportunity for a kid who had a rough and transient childhood in Baltimore - spent in the projects and briefly in a foster home - and who began life, as he describes it, under "the constant shadow of poverty."
Edmonds attended Baltimore public schools and graduated from City College. His mother, who sometimes worked as a waitress, always encouraged Edmonds and his three siblings to read, and he remembers devouring a volume of classics she once brought home.
Edmonds went on to study English at Morgan State University, where he paid his way with a variety of summer jobs, including working for a collections agency, at a glass company and doing phone solicitations for Sears.
In class, he was quiet but passionate about reading and writing.
"You had to pull things out of him, but the things you pulled out were just marvelous. So you waited - you waited to see what he would write," said Ruthe Sheffey, an English professor who taught Edmonds. "He was sort of retiring, but bright, bright, bright."
After college, Edmonds dreamed of becoming a journalist, but had a hard time breaking into the field. The Sun was among the newspapers and television stations that rejected him, says Edmonds (although the newspaper has more recently printed several of his poems). So he turned to the public relations world, where he excelled, working for several nonprofits and private companies in Baltimore before turning his gaze to Washington, D.C.
'Feels the speeches'
He served as press secretary for then-Rep. Kweisi Mfume, now the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and later went to work for Donna E. Shalala, then-secretary of Health and Human Services. Shalala said he quickly impressed her with his sense of cadence and rhythm, and his ear for matching words to the speaker who would use them.
"He's a talented wordsmith who feels the speeches," said Shalala, now president of the University of Miami. "He's a professional - he adapts to his principal and has great integrity."
Colleagues describe Edmonds as a humble and calming presence in a world of egos and fast-breaking developments. They also say he is a lightning-fast writer who has a sixth sense for what will work - and what won't.
Edmonds "appreciates that it's not facts but values that allow people to connect to a speech, and he places policy issues into a larger, more important context of why it matters," says Daniel R. Porterfield, the vice president for public affairs at Georgetown University, who was Edmonds' boss in Shalala's speechwriting office.
"He recognizes the drama and importance of people's everyday aspirations and struggles, and he honors that ... so the poetry that's in there is grounded in the context of a particular appreciation of the real life of women and men and families," Porterfield said.
His writing would propel Edmonds to the Clinton White House, where he got his first taste of presidential speechwriting and life on the campaign trail, and where he worked with Mary Beth Cahill, now Kerry's campaign manager and the person who tapped him for the campaign.
"Recruiting Terry to come and serve in this crucial role is like getting the first-round pick signed and on board just before the season starts," Cahill said in a statement.
These days, Edmonds spends his days talking with Kerry's policy aides, collaborating with his four-person speechwriting team to draft and revise speeches and - whenever possible - working with Kerry.
Last month, Edmonds joined a cross-country, six-cities-in-four-days campaign trip with the candidate, meeting Kerry for the first time and getting some crucial personal contact with the man whose voice he is helping to shape.
Among Edmonds' most important tasks, he said, is "to give [Kerry] back some of his own language."
Edmonds found time during the whirlwind trip to sequester himself in his hotel room with his laptop and start a draft of the convention speech, which he talks about a bit breathlessly, as a movie director might discuss a screenplay.
"It's as much a logistical and orchestral management task as it is a creative task, because you have a limited amount of time," Edmonds says. "There's so much riding on these big speeches."
With a packed schedule and a seemingly endless list of speeches to write, Edmonds has had little time to think about the future, but he says his plan is to return to his old job when the campaign is over - win or lose.
"The beauty of this is ... after five months, I'm going to go back and resume normalcy - whatever that is," Edmonds said, noting that he is on a temporary leave from the AARP.
But pressed about whether he might be lured back to a life of politics and poetry in a Kerry White House, Edmonds is not so sure.
"I don't know," he says. "You can never say never."