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Robert Orben interviewed about his gag books – Page 3

Gag and speech writing at the White House for President Gerald R. Ford...

Robert Orben turned his hand to politics in the 1970s…

ROBERT ORBEN: I don’t know whether you’re aware of this from whatever you’ve found but after I migrated to six years on the Red Skelton Show I started to write for political people, politicians, and it eventually brought me to 1973 when I became a consultant to Vice President Gerald R. Ford. And in 1974 I joined the White House staff and in 1976 I became director of the White House speech writing department. For Gerald R. Ford.

RV: So, what was the procedure when you were writing a speech?

RO: Well the speechwriting is a rather large part of the White House operation.

There’s usually about six speech writers, Nixon had 14. I don’t know how many Bush has, probably seven or eight of them, I’m sort of guessing at that, but we had about six and what would happen is you’d get a schedule of the speeches that had been committed to, and I’d meet with the president, and go over each of the speeches.
He would tell me what areas he wanted to cover and since we were pretty well familiar with the administration policy then we’d sit down and write the speeches.

There were six of us. And then what was unusual, and I didn’t realise how unusual it was having met with other White House speechwriters, I had enormous access to the president.

I would say I spent two to three hours a week in the Oval Office working with the president on speeches and then when we’d fly out to do the speeches, on Air Force One, I would work with him a little more and we’d go over the speech in a sort of rehearsal, and so for most of the domestic speeches I was with him.

And that sort of access to the president hasn’t been the case since Gerald R. Ford, and I personally don’t feel you can do a totally adequate job for anybody whether it’s a comedian, a business executive or a president without having one on one access.


RV: What was he like?

RO: He is wonderful. He is a totally down to earth individual and he is to this day.

I went to the White House last year at a dinner celebrating his 90th birthday and in another couple of months on August 9th we’ll be going to the capital for a dinner and reception honoring Gerald R. Ford for the, arr, it’s the 30th anniversary of when he assumed office.

And there’s no imperial presidency with Gerald R. Ford. He is just a down to earth and an extremely capable person and what’s giving me great satisfaction having lived to my mature age is that all of the criticism that he got at the time for pardoning Nixon and the put-downs he got.

Those same people are now writing articles and books and appearing on television saying that the Nixon pardon was right.

It saved our country from a debacle of arrr…a political debacle, and that Gerald R. Ford was a very capable and good president.

RV: When you were with him did he seem kind of, um, to take the presidency in his stride, like it was just another job?

RO: Well, remember he had been in the Congress for 24 years, where he was minority leader, that’s the leader of the party out of (power), the Shadow/ Opposition in England.

So he was a very astute politician.

I remember him talking. We were going over a speech when I was the consultant, he was vice president, and I remember late at night, one night.

There was all the furore about “Is Nixon going to resign? Is Nixon going to be impeached?”
And ahh, Vice-President Ford was saying to me, he said, “You know I promised my wife Betty that this would be my last year in Congress, and arr, I don’t wish to be president.”

And, ahh, but when he was asked obviously he had to take the role.

RV: Right. And um, just jumping back to the humor now, again, arr I’ve got maybe five more questions…

RO: Well, I’ll tell you, arr, before we..speaking of humor.

Ford had a very great appreciation of humor and in the very second speech he did as president…ahh, there was tremendous uncertainty in the country whether our constitution was going to work.

Here was a non-elected vice president and now a non-elected president and there were all manner of rumours about the troops being on alert and whether the system was going to work.

And Ford was very much aware of that so for his second speech, it was at the Ohio State University, there were…it was to 15000 people in the Field House, huge audience, and he started out by saying “So much has happened since I accepted your kind invitation to be here today.

“At that point I was America’s first instant vice president and now I find myself America’s first instant president.

“The U.S. marine corps band is so confused they don’t know whether to play Hail to the Chief or You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.”

It was an interesting crowd reaction.

Nobody knew Gerald R. Ford. There was a split second of silence when I almost died there.

And then suddenly the place was up for grabs. A roar of laughter.

RV: That was your gag?
RO: Well, it was the president… the president said it.

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-copyright Simon Sandall.