Historian and Librarian Turns to Advising Brown's President and Hillary Clinton

Frank Mullin

Edward L. Widmer
October 15, 2012

One month removed from running the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, Edward L. (Ted) Widmer says his new life brings back memories of his old rock 'n' roll days.

He sleeps less but must be more alert. He often wakes up in a different city from the day before-a recent week found him in New York, Washington, Providence, and Boston. "And you wear badges all the time," he adds.

The similarities end there. Though he once donned a powdered wig as a faux-18th-century aristocrat Lord Rockingham in a Boston-based rock band, the Upper Crust, Mr. Widmer, 49, now spends much of his time with true power brokers as a senior adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. He spends the rest of his working hours as an assistant for special projects to Brown's new president, Christina H. Paxson, helping the university prepare for its 250th anniversary, in 2014.

Mr. Widmer had no plans to leave the library but was flattered to be considered for the State Department job. The trained historian was contacted because of his previous work in President Bill Clinton's administration, from 1997 to 2001, as a speechwriter. But he describes his work with Mrs. Clinton as "a kind of history-based consulting." He mines the historical record for memos on a "broad portfolio" of foreign-policy issues at the State Department. The work brings long days but is expected to be short-lived. Mr. Widmer plans to step down, along with Mrs. Clinton, early next year.

His former boss at the White House, Samuel R. Berger, says he's happy that Mr. Widmer is back in town.

"He just brings such a fresh perspective," says Mr. Berger, who was national-security adviser to President Clinton during Mr. Widmer's tenure. "He's a brilliant writer with a great historical sense."

Mr. Widmer says he had no "grand strategy" when he studied at Harvard University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1984 and a doctorate in the history of American civilization in 1993. "I wasn't sure the normal life of a historian was going to work out for me," he says.

He began writing for a broader audience through freelance reporting, first for alternative weekly newspapers in Boston and Providence and then as a regular contributor to the now-defunct magazine George. He's since written and edited several books, including a biography of President Martin Van Buren and a recent collection of recordings and transcripts of conversations between President John F. Kennedy and his cabinet during Mr. Kennedy's last year and a half in the White House.

At the end of Mr. Widmer's time in the White House, he became the first director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, at Washington College, in Maryland. He took over the Brown library in 2006, and is happy that his work with Ms. Paxson allows him to maintain his ties to the university. While the details of that work are still being hashed out, he sees it in terms similar to his position at the State Department. He helps Brown's president, who started in July, get a firmer grasp on the university's history—one that includes both early religious tolerance and ties to the slave trade—as she develops her strategy for its future.

"Ted knows Brown better than anybody I know," Ms. Paxson says. His work will probably expand after his time at the State Department ends, and Ms. Paxson says she hopes that he will also help plan anniversary events and return to the classroom.

The library was one of the first places on campus the Brown president visited when she began this past summer, and she was particularly impressed by the digitization projects led by Mr. Widmer. "We're making these incredibly rare texts more accessible," she says.

An effort under way to bring Haitian books and maps online took on an added sense of urgency after the earthquake that struck the country in 2010. Mr. Widmer, who had been working with Haitian librarians, helped raise money to rescue books from the national library before it collapsed. "I grew to be a total convert to the value of digitization," he says.

For Mr. Widmer, becoming director of the Brown library was something of a homecoming. His father, Eric, served on the Brown faculty and as dean of admissions. Mr. Widmer, who spent much of his childhood on campus, says it feels like home.

"I was a ball boy on the Brown soccer team as a 12-year-old," he says. "I've always come back to Providence, and I expect that I always will."