Ted Widmer: A short biography of a former speechwriter

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Imagine a historian who has starred in a rock and roll band, written speeches for an American president, enjoyed a lifelong love affair with cartoons and now leads one of the most cherished libraries in the land. Such is Ted Widmer. Look no further to understand that some people cannot be catalogued and filed under one subject. Widmer is a gallimaufry of identities: writer, librarian, political observer, scholar of American history and a ravenously curious cultural dilettante. He is also that rarity in academic circles: a bridge between thinking and doing -- an intellectual who has done time in the real world.

Currently the director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, Widmer was plucked from his junior teaching position at Harvard to be President Bill Clinton's speechwriter in 1997. He had had no training for it. "I was 90 percent academic, 10 percent writer," he says, but he parlayed his work at the Harvard Lampoon and later at George magazine, wrote a sample dinner toast to a Guatemalan president and got the job.

The ease with which Widmer moves from the academy to journalism to politics has made him a keen witness to the American experience. Among his books are "Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City," the biography "Martin Van Buren" and, most recently, an account of America's search for a place in the world, "Ark of the Liberties." His in-depth interviews of the president became the core of Clinton's autobiography, "My Life." Widmer was also the founder and first director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College in Chestertown, Md.

His father and mother were scholars of Asia: he, a dean at Brown and then headmaster of Deerfield Academy; she, a professor of Chinese at Wellesley. When Widmer was 8, his father took him on a field trip to Washington, which prompted his enduring fascination with American history. "Everywhere else in the house, there were Chinese scrolls and Buddhas. In my room, it was [Red Sox ball player] Carl Yastrzemski and Abe Lincoln."

Even the rock band for which he was a lead singer and guitarist, the Upper Crust, was historical in nature: a group of powdered-wig aristocrats crowing, "Let them eat rock!" The FBI, checking his bona fides when he applied to the White House, asked: What did you mean by that, exactly? A Washington moment straight out of "Spinal Tap," Widmer reflects. "But I was genuinely terrified."

-- Marie Arana

© 2010 The Washington Post Company