Ted Widmer Discusses U.S. Presidents

At 7 p.m. on President’s Day, all students were required to attend an all-school lecture in the Campbell Performing Arts Center. During this lecture, students were treated to bits of trivia about our own school, as well as facts about president’s brand power and the public perception of past presidents. The man who delivered this lecture was Ted Widmer, who had done significant academic work on past presidents, and had first-hand experience branding a president as a speechwriter during the Clinton Administration.

Edward “Ted” Ladd Widmer was born in 1963 into an academically-oriented family, with ties to the prep school community. His father, Eric Widmer, attended Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Massachusetts, and later served as its 54th headmaster from 1994-2006. His mother, Ellen Widmer, is currently a professor in Chinese studies at Wellesley College. Ted Widmer graduated from the Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island in 1980. He went on to attend Harvard University, where he obtained an A.B. in the history and literature of France and the U.S., an A.M. in history, and later received a Ph.D. in the history of American civilization. At Harvard, he worked for The Harvard Lampoon, the resident humor newspaper on campus. In 1992, he married Mary Rhinelander, daughter of Fred Rhinelander ’49 and niece of John ’51 and David Rhinelander ’53.

The next year, he became a lecturer of history and literature at his alma mater, Harvard University. He continued this job for four years, from 1993-1997, until he was hired to work for Bill Clinton, who was then in his second term as President. He was a speechwriter, specifically focusing on foreign relations and policies, and also was a senior advisor for special projects.

After departing from government employment in 2001, Mr. Widmer became the first director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, an institute at the Washington College at Maryland that promotes the research and study of American history and culture, and an assistant professor at the same college.

Starting from 2002 until 2013, Widmer served as a special advisor to Hillary Clinton until the end of her tenure as Secretary of State. In 2003, Mr. Widmer was chosen as director and librarian of the John Carter Brown Library, an independently-funded academic research library of history and the humanities. A frequent contributor to publications such as the New York Times and The American Scholar, Widmer has also written three books: one on Varen Buren, one on the history of presidential races, and one on New York City politics. He is presently working on a fourth book on Abraham Lincoln’s train trip to Washington DC for his first inauguration, and helping Hillary Clinton write her memoirs.

Sowon Lee ’15 said: “He was one of the only lecturers I’ve enjoyed so far, and I thought what he had to say was interesting. I thought he not only gave an informative speech, but also included humor to make it enjoyable.”

During the Q&A after Mr. Widmer’s lecture, many questions were posed related to his speechwriting career under President Clinton. Mr. Widmer stated he was assigned specific topics in the foreign policy office of speechwriting. His assignments were usually on a specific country, such as Ireland, where President Clinton was working on peace in the northern regions. When President Clinton embarked on trips to China or Russia, one of Mr. Widmer’s jobs was to research current issues in those specific countries.

Though he rarely had the chance to talk directly to President Clinton, Mr. Widmer did note most of the public image President Clinton projected was indeed accurate, with the exception that President Clinton had a bigger temper than the public thought he did.

When asked about his predictions for the upcoming presidential election in 2016, Mr. Widmer stated that he thought Hillary Clinton might run again, but that her health issues could prohibit her from doing so. He raised the option of Jeb Bush, but questioned whether the country would want another Bush.

The general conclusion was that Mr. Widmer was a great choice for this lecture. Not only did he give a fascinating speech  with a lot of information, but he kept the audience engrossed and attentive. Groton hopes to have more lecturers who are as engaging as Ted Widmer.

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