On January 27, 2000, in his last State of the Union address, Bill Clinton challenged the nation to constantly renew itself by taking “the long look ahead.” That is exactly the challenge he has met for himself for the past 20 years. As the President’s chief speechwriter during his final term, I came to know that rare leader who woke up every day with a driving vision and purpose – to make life better for middle class and working-class Americans, especially the oft forgotten “least of these.” That commitment is as strong as ever today.
July 30 marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Clinton Foundation office at 55 West 125th Street in the heart of Harlem. On that day, in 2001, scarcely seven months after moving out of his Pennsylvania Avenue presidential residence, President Clinton stood on the steps of Adam Clayton Powell Plaza and proclaimed to a welcoming crowd that he was glad to “be home.” He pledged “to try to help promote economic opportunity in our back yard, in our country and around the world.”
As a child of Baltimore’s inner-city projects, I know first-hand the difference an opportunity can make in a person’s life. Poverty almost tore my family and dreams apart. That is why I felt so fortunate in 1995 to join President Clinton’s speechwriting team and eventually become the first African American chief speechwriter for an American president.
Over eight years, I had the privilege of working in an Administration that created nearly 23 million jobs, with overall incomes rising by 17 percent (adjusted for inflation) – and with Black and Hispanic families’ incomes rising by 33 percent and 24 percent respectively. This is a record to be proud of. But what drew me to the Clinton White House and what moves me today are a couple of very simple but powerful ideas that Bill Clinton and I share: intelligence and talent are distributed equally, opportunity is not; and the most important fact of life is our common humanity.
Over the past two decades, with partnership as its guiding principle, the Clinton Foundation has launched programs that have now helped more than 21 million people around the world access lifesaving HIV/AIDS treatment; created healthier learning environments for more than 30 million children in the U.S. who are eating better and moving more; built a community of change-makers through the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) whose Commitments to Action have improved the lives of more than 430 million people in 180 countries.
After more than a year of a pandemic that has removed the veil of systemic racism and inequality that has shrouded our nation since its founding, the President has continued the fight for racial reconciliation that he first envisioned with his 1997 creation of the White House Office on One America. Not since Lyndon Johnson had a president put the issue of racism and the potential for racial reconciliation at the top of the national agenda. The Clinton Foundation is building on the successful approach of that effort.
In recognition of the disparate impact the pandemic has had on communities of color, earlier this year, President Clinton announced the formation of a new CGI Action Network on an Inclusive Economic Recovery focused on domestic economic recovery by building meaningful partnerships that make specific Commitments to Action. The first two commitments were made by the Rockefeller Foundation and the United Way of New York City.
In response to the increase in food insecurity resulting from the pandemic, the Clinton Presidential Center, in partnership with World Central Kitchen, the city of Little Rock, and many other local partners, prepared and distributed more than 700,000 meals to students, families, seniors, and others in need during the pandemic.
When I walked out of the White House as Bill Clinton’s Director of Speechwriting for the last time, I worried if it would mark the close of an unprecedented era of economic advancement and social progress. I also wondered if this was the end of an amazing personal and professional relationship. As we celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the Clinton Foundation and take the long look ahead, I am blessed by an enduring friendship with President Clinton, and I am inspired by his continued leadership in the on-going fight for economic, social and racial justice.
Terry Edmonds is currently a fellow in the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative. He was formerly chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton.