RIP Douglas Bennet: Writing Well Was One of His Many Talents

Doug Bennet at Wesleyan University.

Douglas Bennet, best known for being president of Wesleyan University from 1995 to 2007 and for saving NPR from financial disaster in the 1980s, died June 10. Also notable were his two sons: Michael, the U.S. Senator from Colorado, and James, editor of the New York Times editorial page.

The Washington Post obit mentions that Doug worked for Vice President Humphrey after receiving his doctorate in history from Harvard in 1967.

In Vice President Humphrey’s office, Doug was, among other things, Humphrey’s speechwriter and if Humphrey had defeated Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential election, he would have been best known for being an influential White House aide. Those of us who knew him think he would have helped Humphrey get out of Vietnam much faster than President Nixon did and a President Humphrey would have expanded President Johnson’s Great Society to help many more people.

One of my memories of Doug:

In January 1968 I had taken a break from journalism to start a Congressional Fellowship in the Senate office of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. At that point in 1968 everyone assumed President Lyndon Johnson would run for re-election and Humphrey again would be his running mate. That changed in March 1968 when Johnson decided not to run for re-election and Humphrey became the Democratic nominee for president.

My boss was Norman Sherman, the Vice President’s press secretary, and my first job was to send telegrams to organizations that had invited the Vice President to speak but he was saying no.

Writing telegrams quickly got old and I thought it’d be educational to write a speech for the Vice President. I went to Doug Bennet, Humphrey’s speechwriter, and he said sure, the Vice President is speaking to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce next month, go ahead and write a speech for him.

I worked on the speech for maybe 10 days. My first job in journalism had been writing the UPI broadcast wire so I thought I knew something about how to write words that would be spoken. I gave Bennet a speech draft—he glanced over it and said something about it reading well.

It came time for the Vice President to give the speech and early that day the text of Humphrey’s speech was released to the media. I eagerly picked up the advance text and discovered that Doug hadn’t used a single phrase I had written.

Disappointed, I went to the Chamber of Commerce dinner. Humphrey gave a good speech but he winged it, as he liked to do, and didn’t use a single phrase Doug had written.

RIP, a very talented man and a nice guy, too, who could laugh at the political circus that Washington often is.

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