Speechwriter Robert Orben Remembers Ford

Robert Orben served as a special assistant to President Ford, running the White House speech-writing office. He tells Renee Montagne about what it was like to work closely with Ford.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renée Montagne.

Today, we're remembering former President Gerald Ford, who died last night at his home here in California. Gerald Ford became president in 1974. He succeeded President Richard Nixon, who resigned amid the Watergate scandal. Joining us now is Bob Orben. He served as President Ford's speechwriter, and he's on the line from Tampa, Florida. Good morning.

Mr. BOB ORBEN (Speechwriter for President Gerald Ford): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: What was Gerald Ford like to work with?

Mr. ORBEN: He was the kindest, gentlest and easiest client I have ever had.

MONTAGNE: What did President Ford look for in a speech?

Mr. ORBEN: He'd liked simple language. He liked to put it in his own words. And he liked humor. That's how I first became involved with him. In 1968, I was a writer on “The Red Skelton Show.” And at that point, Congressman Ford was asked to be a speaker at the gridiron dinner in Washington.

And while he did about 200 speeches a year as a congressman, humor wasn't a big part of it. And so I wrote a good part of that speech for the gridiron dinner, and it was hugely successful. Everybody thought that Hubert Humphrey, who was well used to using humor, would be the star of the evening. And instead, it was Gerald R. Ford.

And Gerald R. Ford realized that humor was a good part of communication, a very effective part of communication, and so I continued working for him through the years and eventually into the White House.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, the president, when he was made quite a bit fun off by Chevy Chase from “Saturday Night Live,” seemed to appreciate, seemed to laugh along with it. Was that true?

Mr. ORBEN: Well, oh yes, yes. He - I never really had the courage to ask him directly what his reaction to it all was. But there was no ridicule, there was nothing but praise until the pardon.

MONTAGNE: The pardon. He of course pardoned President Richard Nixon.

Mr. ORBEN: Pardon of Richard Nixon. This was a greater act of political courage than anybody realizes. And President Ford, with 25 years in politics, knew what a anchor on the next few years that would be.

MONTAGNE: So, right, I mean within a month of taking over as president, his poll numbers plunged because of this pardon. And he never really recovered in a certain way. How do you think he'll be remembered, though?

Mr. ORBEN: Well, he, at the time, it really was a public relations disaster. But almost every critic who vilified President Ford at that time has now said that, yes, it was the right thing to do. And they have publicly apologized, many of them.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. ORBEN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Bob Orben was special assistant to President Ford and director of the White House Speech Writing Office. He was remembering his former boss who died yesterday at his home in California. Gerald Ford was 93 years old.

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