BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | FEB 12, 2023
“Congress killed the federal aid to education bill and I don’t blame them. If there’s one thing those fellas have to worry about it’s educated voters.”
Trivia question: Was that quip made by Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Will Rogers, George Carlin or Bob Orben?
Yes, Bob Orben. It was among thousands of funny lines written by Bob, one of the most prolific and sought after comedy writers of a bygone era. Bob died February 2, 2023, at the age of 95. He was a friend, colleague, and mentor during a surreal time in my life. He always had good advice: “Old people shouldn’t eat health food,” he quipped, “they need all the preservatives they can get.” A good friend of his was quoted in a newspaper obituary that “it probably wasn’t lost on him that he died on Groundhog Day.”
Orben wrote for entertainers, among them Red Skelton, Dick Gregory, Red Buttons, and Jack Paar; countless business executives and political figures dating back to Barry Goldwater.
When Gerald R. Ford was Republican leader in the US House, he asked Orben to write a humorous speech for the illustrious Gridiron Dinner in Washington. He wrote the speech and trained Ford in comedic delivery. Anyone familiar with Ford understood why. The future President was not exactly a rib-tickler. But that night, he was, according to the New York Times.
Ford turned to Orben again when he became Vice President. When he became an instant President, Ford chose Bob to head up the White House speechwriting office going into the 1976 election. Orben replaced Paul Theis.
My introduction to Bob was anything but natural and like the joke above, a bit comedic. I was a young newspaper editor from Illinois who came to Washington to interview with Theis for a position on the White House staff in the speechwriting and research wing of the ornate Old Executive Office Building in early 1976. My timing was miserable. It was on a day that turned out to be Paul’s last day on the job. The interview didn’t happen. On the way out of Paul’s office, dejected with head bowed, I physically bumped into Orben who was just entering the office. I apologized for the collision and introduced myself, without knowing who he was. Orben said, “Your name is familiar. Do I have your resume on my desk?” I hope so, I replied. The two of us went back to Orben’s office and chatted.
A month or so later, I got the job on the White House staff initially on a temporary basis and for the first couple of months checked in at the West Wing every morning as a visitor. I practiced the speechwriting craft under Orben and Pat Butler, a talented senior scribe from Tennessee. But I spent most of my days in the White House drafting and editing Presidential messages and did advance trips to Michigan, California, and Nevada. I drafted a few speeches, but none that ever fell from the President’s lips.
My time in the White House was indescribably memorable. It was an honor and an adventure. It was also at times a painful, but priceless educational experience. It was the beginning of a friendship (actually several, among them Butler, Jim Conzelman in research and Marcia Stark, Counselor Bob Hartmann’s assistant). I got to know Orben and his wife, Jean. He was a mentor and a role model. He and Jean were bibliophiles, lovers of books, art, and music.
My former wife and I were invited to join them at the Kennedy Center. We went to dinner and to their home in the Watergate. We continued to correspond long after we all left the White House. I often swiped funny lines from the Orben newsletter, Current Comedy, with attribution, of course. He wrote books, booklets, newsletters, and jokes for every occasion. I admired him because his writing never crossed the lines of civility and simple human respect. He could write some zingers, but they were never stabbing. I never heard a drop of vitriol. He and Jean to me were decent, humble, and elegant people without pretense or pomposity.
It is a great loss that his brand of genteel humor is no longer in fashion. He said it best: “I remember when humor was gentle pokes,” he said. “I used to call it arm around the shoulder humor. Now they go for the jugular and they take no prisoners. It is mean, mean stuff.”
Bob and I eventually lost contact and that was mostly my fault. I was a little intimidated by his intellect and impressive career. I never wanted to impose.
That Gridiron speech Bob wrote for Ford was in competition with one delivered by Senator Hubert Humphrey, the happy warrior from Minnesota.
When Humphrey passed away in 1978, he was replaced in the Senate by Dave Durenberger. Dave was another good friend and mentor. He just passed away, too, on the last day of January.
Dave had an impressive career in Minnesota and Washington. He was the consummate public servant. In the Senate he became an expert and valued resource on health care issues. He championed natural resources, moving legislation to set aside large areas of wilderness and environmental causes, such as reducing acid rain and the creation of Superfund financing for cleaning up waste sites. He was an avid fisherman, and who wouldn’t be hailing from the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
The Senator’s career in government was consistent with the once populist, traditionally progressive ideals of Minnesota and for that matter the surrounding states of the Great Plains. He often worked across the aisle. He was a bipartisan partisan Republican.
Dave sent me a speech he gave before the Isaac Walton League annual meeting a few years ago in which he urged the members to establish a “cause way” to a better future for civic engagement: If you really want to continue building this organization and its influence across America,” he told them, “reach out to someone you may not always see eye-to-eye with and go fishing, hiking, paddling or watching some birds…I’ll bet you come back with a dozen better ideas…I know it works because I’ve done it myself.”
The Senator was a strong advocate of civility in politics, and was dismayed by the evolution to stridency and gridlock. He was also a strong advocate for Federalism and the steel linkage between the states and the Federal government.
Dave and I worked together on Congressional reform. He contributed to a book I’ve co-authored on how citizens can retake control of the Congress. My brother, Gary, who was president of a Minneapolis-St. Paul communications company, and I helped Dave with a fascinating book he co-authored with Lori Sturdavent called When Republicans Were Progressives, taking readers far back to the progressive movement popularized 90 years ago by three-term Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen, whose career was overshadowed by his perpetual candidacy for President.
We human beings are not one person; we are a composite of many people who have influenced our lives. I have no doubt that through the course of their lives Bob Orben and Dave Durenberger influenced many others in many ways, depending of course on who they knew and when they knew them.
Bob walked into my life in the infancy of my career in and around politics. Dave and I became friends in the sunset of our careers. Both of them left positive and lasting imprints on me. They proved once again that you never stop learning or growing. I’ll remember them with fondness the rest of my days.
And that’s no joke.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and four grandchildren.