The Clinton Library hosted “A Conversation with African American Leaders in the Clinton Administration,” on Feb. 27 as a part of its celebration of Black History Month.
The Clinton Administration was well known for being the first in the history of the White House to represent the diversity of America. The panel consisted of four of the administration’s highest leaders and most intimate insiders in the Clinton’s White House.
Terry Edmonds, Ben Johnson, Janis Kearny, and Bob Nash were invited to speak about their time in the White House.
The discussion began by each guest describing how they came into their positions in the Clinton administration. Ben Johnson had worked for the Carter administration as Deputy Director of Consumer Programs and as a result was invited to volunteer for the Clinton Campaign as part of its Black outreach program. Johnson’s positions in the Clinton Administration included Assistant to the President and the Director of the White House
“It was supposed to only be once a week. But then it turned out to be one week a month, two weeks a month, and I told them look, you gotta pay me for this,” Johnson said, jokingly.
Janis Kearny, who has the distinction of being the first presidential diarist, spoke of how surreal her position actually was. She said that she worked in the Small Business Administration Office until in 1995, then Pres. Clinton decided he wanted a personal diarist who could create a living history of his time in office.
“I did apply for it, and I got the job. And if I tell you that was a job that there’s no way I ever could’ve dreamed about it – believe me, I grew up chopping cotton and picking cotton – so to dream about becoming a personal diarist to a president was something that, you know, I never could’ve expected,” Kearny said.
Terry Edmonds, the first African American presidential speechwriter spoke of his time in the White House.
“Writing speeches for Bill Clinton was the most exhilarating, and exhausting experience of my life,” said Edmonds, which earned him a laugh from the crowd.
Edmonds went on to speak about how Clinton was one of the most loquacious presidents in history and that it was hard work to write speeches based on the president’s policies. He said it was a 24/7 job, but it was also a fascinating job and he was able to meet so many wonderful people. He joked about Clinton being only about 50 percent obedient to the scripts but then made sure to remind everyone in the crowd that he [Clinton] was always best when he went off-script and spoke from the heart.
When the panel of guests was asked what their favorite memory of their time in the White House was, they all agreed – it was meeting Nelson Mandela.
Bob Nash, frmr Assistant to the President and Director of Presidential Personnel, spoke about a trip in which he accompanied Pres. Clinton to Africa. He said they traveled to about seven or eight countries in a 10 or 12-day period.
“That for me was phenomenal. I’d never been to Africa. And we stayed about a couple days and it was unreal what you saw and felt. It was unlike anything you’d ever read or saw on tv… that for me was a once-in-a-hundred lifetimes opportunity,” said Nash.
The hour-long conversation was filled with fun stories as well as stories of some of the harder times of the Clinton presidency. Each speaker made mention of Clinton coming through on his campaign promise that he would have an administration that reflected America as a whole, and just as diverse.
In the end, the audience was left with pleas from the four panelists to get involved in politics, whether it be local, state, or federal, to make a difference in the country and in the world. The panel reminded the crowd of their own humble beginnings and that no matter how little difference a person thinks they can make, they never will know for sure until they get out and try.
This panel was the final event in February at the Clinton Library revolving around Black History Month. Earlier in the month, the library hosted exhibits revolving around Nelson Mandela and South Africa, as well as a visit from Mandela’s personal assistant, Zelda la Grange.