by Ryan Morton
A few days before John McCain gave his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul last September, U.S. News & World Report asked Lee Huebner to weigh in on what the Republican presidential hopeful should say when he accepted the party's nomination.
"If the 'up-for-grabs' vote is John McCain's first political priority, his first rhetorical priority should be rehabilitating his independent image," wrote Huebner (WCAS62), a former speechwriter for President Nixon. "The bad news for McCain would be his need to launch this process before the Republican Party in convention assembled — perhaps among the least sympathetic audiences anywhere for a maverick-centered message."
It's not clear if McCain took Huebner's advice, but it wasn't surprising that U.S. News solicited his thoughts.
Huebner had been grappling with issues of politics and the media even before he was hired as a Nixon speechwriter, and afterward as the publisher of the International Herald Tribune. And now that Huebner is director of the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, he's back inside the Beltway after 12 years teaching politics and media at Northwestern.
As a student at Northwestern, Huebner never locked himself into one path, considering careers in education, journalism and politics. But the history major wanted to be a generalist above all else. "The problem is, I haven't mastered any one thing in particular," admits Huebner, half joking. "I've dabbled in everything and waited for opportunities to arise."
His first major opportunity presented itself while Huebner was pursuing his master's and doctorate in history at Harvard University. Huebner and a few of his fellow students were discouraged by the lack of excitement surrounding the Republican Party at the time. In response, in December 1962, they founded the Ripon Society, a centrist Republican public policy advocacy organization designed to bring liveliness and new ideas to the national party. (He also met his wife, Berna, whom he married in 1978, through the Ripon Society.)
One of the early supporters of the Ripon Society was Richard Nixon. In late 1963, as he was planning his political comeback, Nixon met with society members over lunch. The future president was so impressed by Huebner that he later offered the young policy buff a speechwriting job.
"He called me 'the anecdote man,'" recalls Huebner, who handled a variety of writing and editing roles as deputy director of the White House writing and research staff. "Much of what Nixon wanted was raw material that he could extemporize on in his speeches, so I helped come up with historical references, statistical tidbits and things like that."
(In Robert Schlesinger's new book, White House Ghosts, Ray Price, Nixon's chief speechwriter, called Huebner the "best man on substance.")
Although he loved his work at the White House, Huebner's restless soul started to kick in. He decided to take a private sector job with a diversified media company in New York City. It was, coincidentally, eight months before Nixon resigned.
"It was fascinating to leave politics behind for a while and focus on business," Huebner says. "It was another step in my education, getting a feel for media, economics and all their complexities."
While with Whitney Communications, Huebner acted as the liaison between the company and the International Herald Tribune, traveling often between New York and Paris. He enjoyed these assignments so much that he kept asking for more opportunities like them. When the publishing job at the International Herald Tribune became available in 1979, Huebner was the clear choice.
As publisher and CEO, Huebner oversaw the transition of the International Herald Tribune into a truly worldwide newspaper. At the time, the technology to print by facsimile was just emerging, allowing the paper to be typeset in Paris each night and then distributed electronically to printing sites around the world.
After 14 years with the paper, Huebner returned to the United States in 1994. Dick Leopold (see "Sundays with Dick," winter 2007, and "Mentor, Intellect, Friend," spring 2003), his former Northwestern history professor, urged him to come back to the University. Although Huebner was worried that he had not kept up with the field, his political and media background served him well in teaching classes in both the School of Communication and the Medill School of Journalism.
Two of Huebner's most popular classes were based in part on his own experiences. In one he lectured on the life and career of Nixon as a case study in political rhetoric, and in the other Huebner taught students how to write dynamic speeches.
"What always made me laugh is how casually he'd drop names," says senior Will Upton, one of Huebner's former students. "He'd say, 'I turned to Nixon and laughed' or 'Kissinger asked me … ,' like it was a normal occurrence."
Huebner's impact on Northwestern students went beyond the classroom. In 2002 he became the master for the Public Affairs Residential College, helping the residents plan a variety of intellectual and social events on and off campus. He regularly chatted with students over lunch, sharing his many anecdotes but also, more often than not, inquiring about their lives. He loved the side job so much that he stayed in the position for four years, longer than most college masters.
"Professor Huebner was motivated to have personal relationships with students outside of class, much more than most professors are," says Brittany Ladd (WCAS08), who lived in PARC for two years. "The opportunity to tap into his wisdom and insights over lunch was invaluable."
Huebner also created an annual international media seminar for students in Paris during spring break. He still leads the seminar for Northwestern and GW students in back-to-back weeks. In addition to inviting world-renowned journalists and other media figures to speak at the seminar, Lee and Berna also host the students for dinner at their apartment in Paris.
"Being in PARC and leading the Paris trip helped me meet so many extraordinary students," he says. "It was wonderful."
His constant yearning for new frontiers made GW's offer attractive to Huebner in 2006. Having served as acting president of American University in Paris for just a year and a half in the 1990s, he relished the chance to serve once again on the administrative side, planning the direction of the School of Media and Public Affairs.
"We should be able to build the best political media program in the country," Huebner says confidently. "Just four blocks away from the White House, the school is in a fantastic position to expand."
Although Huebner was saddened to leave Northwestern, he knew that with all his ties to the University, he'd never really be gone. He boasts that he has seen the University from nearly every angle: as a high school "Cherub," an undergraduate, an alumnus, a faculty member and even a parent (his son Charley graduated from Northwestern in 2001). And when asked whether he might consider a return to Northwestern in some capacity down the road, he wouldn't rule anything out.
"I hate to close doors," Huebner says. "I like to keep as many balls in the air as possible. Whenever a student tells me they don't know what they want to do when they grow up, I tell them, 'Neither do I.' Who knows what I'll do next?"
Ryan Morton (J08) is news director and a sports broadcaster at Chisholm Trail Broadcasting in Enid, Okla.
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